By India Yarborough
Posted Jan 8, 2020 at 6:46 PM; Updated Jan 8, 2020 at 6:54 PM
After the Dillons food market at 1400 S.W. Huntoon St. closed almost four years ago, residents of central Topeka’s neighborhoods were devastated.
“I knew it was coming, because me and the manager, Bob, talked a lot,” said Emma Ray, who was a resident of central Topeka at the time. “But it was like, ‘Oh my god. What are we going to do now?’ ”
Ray has since moved to another area of the capital city, but the longtime central Topekan makes a point to stay connected with her former neighbors.
She still attends church at Asbury Mount Olive United Methodist on S.W. Buchanan Street. And about twice a month she drives central Topeka families to grocery stores in other parts of town.
“I take them to Dillons on 10th Street,” Ray said, “and then I have to take them to Walmart to get their medicine.”
She said at first it was mostly elderly people who needed rides to stores following the closure of Dillons.
“Now, it’s getting to be anybody that comes over to the church and asks the pastor for my phone number,” Ray said. “I made a vow to do that because that was our store.”
Ray estimates that she drives about 20 families to grocery stores each month. Those who can’t make it to a store, she added, usually end up buying food from a nearby Kwik Shop.
But the tide may soon be turning.
Central Topeka Grocery Oasis, a grassroots group that formed in March 2018, on Wednesday presented the results of a feasibility study it commissioned to determine the viability of bringing a full-service grocery store back to the area. The study was paid for with a $12,500 grant from the Kansas Health Foundation and conducted by Dakota Worldwide Corporation.
“The feasibility study does tell us that central Topeka can support a grocery store of 7,500 to 10,000 square feet,” said Marge Ahrens, one of eight members of Central Topeka Grocery Oasis.
More than a dozen city officials and Topeka community members met Wednesday afternoon with CTGO at the Buchanan Center to hear about the study and discuss next steps.
According to Marc Galbraith, a member of CTGO, the audience for the study is primarily grocery stores looking to locate in central Topeka. Grocery Oasis members noted, though, that it will take public-private partnerships and commitment from city officials to attract the right store — one that offers banking services, has a pharmacy and serves as a gathering place for area residents.
“This store is vital for more than just what it did as a grocery store,” said Clark Trammell, CTGO member. “It is an event. It is an important structure that moves this community upward and forward.”
Trammell said it is crucial for city officials to buy into the process of bringing a store to central Topeka.
“We need you to step up and do your part,” Trammell said, “so that when the grocery store comes to town and says, ‘I’m interested,’ we know who to go to and that everybody is ready to click.”
Attendees of the meeting included Mayor Michelle De La Isla, city manager Brent Trout, Councilwoman Karen Hiller, Michelle Stubblefield of the Greater Topeka Partnership, and others. De La Isla verbally committed to meet soon with CTGO members who are spearheading the grocery store initiative.
And there is lots of work still to be done.
A specific location for the grocery store hasn’t been determined, and neither has a store name or owner.
“We’re approaching everybody,” said Michael Bell, of CTGO. “Some already have a local footprint, some don’t.”
The study says the group needs to attract an experienced grocer, but CTGO is open to considering for-profit grocers and food cooperatives. They would also like to attract a store with a minimal carbon footprint. But above all, CTGO members argued, the store has to serve the community’s needs.
“What we have learned from today is ... that people are jumping on board to help us get to the next step in this process,” Bell said, “because I think we all understand the importance of having that grocery store back in this part of town.”
Here's the Topeka Capital-Journal article on the press presentation