City: Trader Joe's a Good Idea, but Tough Sell for Old Tops Plaza

Patch's Visions for Vacancies asks for your input on empty commercial storefronts

It turns out a lot of people like the idea of a Trader Joe's "specialty retail grocery" storefront on South Water Street near S.R. 261.

But so far it's just that — an idea.

Sixty of the 138 total votes cast in about possible tenants for the space were cast in favor of Trader Joe's.

Like you, city leaders think the store that specializes in hard-to-find food stuffs would be a good fit for Kent.

"I really like the idea of Trader Joe’s," Kent Economic Development Director Dan Smith said.

It's one of several grocers, including Marc's, that Smith has reached out to in the past while on the lookout for potential tenants for the space, which has been empty since Tops left in 2006. Smith said he's had several conversations with different grocery stores about the close to 50,000 square foot space.

"But nothing that generated the amount of interest to actually get a site visit," he said.

Kent City Councilman Wayne Wilson, in whose Ward 3 the empty storefront sits, said he's heard a lot of residents say they want to see Trader Joe's in the space.

"I had never heard of that store before, but I’ve had a fair number of people mention that they felt that would be a good store for us to have," Wilson said. "I’ve talked to a lot of residents that feel they’d like to have a grocery store down here."

Harder than it sounds

Despite Kent's ongoing redevelopment, Wilson said outside interest in putting a grocery store there seems to have faded since opened just down the street in University Plaza a few years ago.

And actually getting a grocery store or large retailer to occupy the space isn't just a matter of picking up a phone and soliciting companies.

Smith said large chain retailers like Trader Joe's , including Cabela's, Whole Foods Market or Ikea, often come to cities with their hands out expecting a deal.

"You almost have to pay for them to come here, and that’s through incentives," he said.

Those incentives can vary from income tax breaks to promised infrastructure work or even free land.

"I don’t think we can afford to go out and get in the grocery store business,” Wilson said. “I think it should remain a free market type business."

And there are other factors aside from cash and incentives.

In 2007, the city contracted with a firm called the Buxton Company to develop four specific market profiles for four areas of Kent. The report developed profiles of consumers in Kent and surrounding communities very similar to the kinds of customer research conducted by large retailers. One of the four areas profiled was the S.R. 261 corridor, which included the Tops plaza.

The goal was give Kent an idea of what businesses it could concentrate its attention on that would prove successful if they opened here. Some of those businesses identified in the Kent study, including , have since moved to the area.

But large retailers know their demographics, Smith said, and they know if the Kent area has the kind of customers they're looking for. Still, he remains optimistic.

"While it’s very hard to contact them and get them interested, I think if they saw Kent Patch articles where everybody’s saying 'Yeah, we’d love to have that ...' I think it’s certainly worth reaching out again and saying 'hey, the Kent community wants you to be here.'"

Indoor farmers market

The suggestion that earned the second most votes in our Patch poll, 24, was the idea of moving the Haymaker Farmers Market from its outdoor location downtown to the former grocery store.

Kelly Ferry, the market manager, said it's not a move the seasonal, once-a-week market could afford to do on its own.

"I personally would love to see it happen," Ferry said.

Such a move could prove challenging for farmers and other market vendors.

Ferry said the huge amount of space would require a big commitment on the part of farmers to plant enough product to be open daily — and make enough money to pay the rent.

She's talked with vendors in the past about possibly running two days a week, but farmers were concerned they would simply be spreading the same customer base out over two days instead of drawing more shoppers.

"It obviously would be a huge challenge for the market to viably do that, to take over that space," Ferry said. "I don’t see how that could really work numbers wise, but there’s creative ways to do things."

Some of those creative ways could involve commitments from larger organizations, like , and even local hospitals, to buy product for their cafeterias and dining halls from local farmers. Then the demand might be there to pay the overhead associated with the space.

"Having a place where that food could be centrally brought in and distributed, that Tops spot is an awesome location because it’s so close to S.R. 261," she said. "(Interstate) 76 isn’t much farther.

"Do we have the volume being produced to support something like that?" Ferry said. "I don’t know that we do at this point."

If it ever becomes a serious discussion, Ferry said she wants to be at the table for it.

"I absolutely think anything like that is on the table," Smith said. "The issue is it always comes down to dollars and cents. It's fairly expensive real estate."

A difficult situation

The former Tops space is different from other vacant commercial properties because for several years after the grocery store left it was still paying on a lease for the property.

Smith said there was both a land owner and a building owner for the property at 1600 S. Water St., and for some time one of them was still receiving money from Tops. He tried recently to find out if that lease was still being paid on but did not hear back from the realtor for the property.

The fact revenue was still coming in may have lowered the incentive for either owner to find a new tenant.

"That made that property a little bit problematic," Smith said.

Two tenants remain in the plaza: and But 67,000 square feet of space remains empty, as do most of the plaza's 633 parking spaces on a daily basis.

Wilson said he's hopeful to see the space filled soon.

"But I’ve been hoping that for quite a while," he said.

Vickie Sampson April 08, 2012 at 12:41 PM
trader joes would be awesome!
dharma freebird April 08, 2012 at 12:50 PM
OMG! A Trader Joe's would be so great! Something like that would be quite successful in Kent. I know so many people who drive to other cities to shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Way to go Kent, let's keep after this awesome idea.
Wade April 08, 2012 at 06:13 PM
Trader Joe's would be nice to have in Kent (not sure Kent Natural Foods would survive), so would Ikea, but it ain't happening. Has anyone ever seen a TJ or Ikea open a location outside of an urban/suburban population center? Do our demographics match the typical demographics that both retailers look for? This article and poll are a way to drive traffic to Kent Patch. Patch has gone poll happy lately.
Debra-Lynn Hook April 08, 2012 at 10:46 PM
Earth Fair is another possibility, and yeah, I'd hate to see the competition for Kent Natural Foods. But, come on planners, Kent is organic/good food crazy. And there are enough people down the road in Ravenna and Hartville, Brimfield that would come this way for this kind of food.
Jack Kelly April 08, 2012 at 10:55 PM
How do you know the city hasn't tried to get Trader Joe's? I didn't think you knew; you're assuming. It sure is easy to take pot shots at city planners et al, when it's essentially up to the business. Every city would love to have a TJ's, but, again, Trader Joe's is not going to come to that section of Kent. Let's be honest: Kent does not (nor the immediate surrounding area) have the demographics that appeals to a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, etc. Like I've said before -- look where Trader Joe's puts their stores. The same goes for Whole Foods, Heinen's, Mustard Seed & the like. That is part of their business strategy. Plus, NO (responsible) taxpayer would be cool giving a company like Trader Joe's, IKEA et al a bunch of handouts -- at taxpayer's expense -- when they'll be making $$ hand-over-fist. It's also not a secret that the NE Ohio area is a very difficult market for any more grocers, between Big Pigeon (Giant Eagle), Acme, Walmart, Marcs and discounters like Aldi & Save-A-Lot (heck, half of the old Apples down the street is still empty, & it's not like retailers are on a waiting list to get into Univ. Plaza either). This is the problem with these big stores like former Tops & Walmart (see Streetsboro) -- they're so big & built for that specific retailer, they're difficult to fill. It's a shame because that space wasn't renovated that long ago to make room for Tops before they went under. There isn't much of a draw to that part of Kent.
Chic-chick April 09, 2012 at 01:11 AM
I would LOVE a Trader Joe's in Town! I Shop there once a month some times twice and I also shop weekly at the Kent Food Coop.
Kevin Fowler April 09, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I would like to see our county and local leadership commit to building a strong food channel locally. A smaller scale Farmers Market like the one in Cleveland. Give local farmers (including meat) incentive to increase their farms!! Increase our economy and maintain control of food supply.
Jon Ridinger April 09, 2012 at 01:42 AM
I don't think it's a planning issue; it's a logistics and demographics issue. The Tops store is a large building, so it is fairly limited in what can go in there among many other factors like condition of the building, rental terms, demographics of the neighborhood and the general area, etc. The best bet is to find these kinds of stores and look at the areas they are located in and then compare those areas with Kent (particularly the South End). Looking at Earth Fare, they have 4 stores in Ohio: Fairlawn, Centerville (near Dayton), Fairview Park (west-side Cleveland suburb), and soon to be Columbus (Polaris Park area). All of them are near an Interstate exit and part of some type of large destination-type shopping area (mall or similar) in suburban areas, just like Trader Joe's, IKEA, Whole Foods, etc.
Debra-Lynn Hook April 09, 2012 at 03:51 AM
Correct: Earth Fare
Diane Stresing April 10, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Trader Joe's WOULD be an awesome addition to the city, in the old Tops location in particular, and so would a paintball and/or indoor soccer facility. It's VERY frustrating for a municipality the size of Kent to have such a well-staffed city roster and yet we have vacancies like this linger...and linger...and ?? Really, with such gems of real estate sitting vacant, it seems we (our city management staff) should be very busy sifting through proposals from qualified businesses eager to park here, especially in the shadow of such a major university. Please tell me we're not going to welcome fracking under the guise of "we need jobs" while we let 100,000+ sq ft sit empty another year...
Eric M. Miller April 10, 2012 at 01:41 AM
While the love for Trader Joe's is great, it just won't fly in the old Tops store. In LA where these stores are abundant, I have never seen one that is even half the size of that location. Most run at about the size of an Aldi's. Most of their products are TJ brand, so they don't need extensive shelf space for different brands of the same items. Plus, they wouldn't put one in a place with so little else around it. A space in downtown kent, like the courthouse building once it is vacated would be a much more likely locale. That all being said, it won't do much to boost our local economy aside from creating a couple dozen jobs. It is still a corporate chain that will send the vast majority of the cash flowing right out of our community. If you really want something that will sustain your local economy and build jobs and income for you and your neighbors then get behind ideas like getting the Farmer's Market in there. It really could work. It would have to be a mixed use space... probably equal parts artisan crafts and foodies. Not too lean on LA too much, but using "The Original Farmer's Market" in Los Angeles (http://www.farmersmarketla.com/) as a model would probably work well. It includes many great food vendors with produce, butchers/delis, arts and crafts and it even has a few bars, restaurants and entertainment. Also, there is nothing like it anywhere near here. It could be our space, a space where we share our ideas & grow our own economy through our own local resources.
Eric M. Miller April 10, 2012 at 01:43 AM
...plus it would be a tourist attraction.
Eric M. Miller April 10, 2012 at 01:46 AM
sorry... "not to lean on..."
Jack Kelly April 10, 2012 at 02:11 PM
And, as I said earlier, what proof do you have that the city is NOT working to get businesses here? Or your proof that they're NOT sifting through proposals. You have proof they actually have proposals they're not "sifting through"? I didn't think you did, either. The alleged "well-staffed city roster" is irrelevant here. Once again, it is essentially up to THAT BUSINESS whether or not they want to locate here -- and/or in THAT particular building and/or in THAT particular section of Kent! A building that size and that was built for a specific retailer will be difficult to fill. This is all pretty basic Business 101 stuff.
Becca April 15, 2012 at 01:52 AM
All I know is I live off sunnybrooke and that place is NOTHING but an eye sour, that side of Kent really needs some attention :/ and to think it's the first thing many people who visit Kent State from that side of the highway see it everytime they enter the city :/ I wish something would just go in their before I leave kent and graduate, but HIGHLY doubtful :/
TanneillWarczak April 15, 2012 at 11:39 AM
We would love a Trader Joe's in Kent!!! What an awesome idea!!!
Debra-Lynn Hook April 15, 2012 at 01:13 PM
So can somebody send Trader Joe's this comment stream? I think it's a pretty sound endorsement myself.
Debra-Lynn Hook April 15, 2012 at 01:15 PM
I must say I also like Eric Miller's idea, ALTHOUGH I'm not sure we have enough local vendors to fill the space. ALSO, if TJ's moved in, it would encourage more business there..I do wonder, now that Eric mentions it, that the space might be too big for TJ's.
miked April 21, 2012 at 06:36 PM
Does anyone actually know who owns the building and if they do, maybe they can explain why it has remained vacant for such an extended period of time. I believe there is more to this story.....
Lesley May 18, 2012 at 01:41 AM
A local Trader Joe's would be amazing for Kent. While prices may seem high to some in the community, for those of us that drive to other cities regularly for organic foods, the amount we would save on gasoline would surely make it a regular stop for us. Possibly Trader Joe's could rent out a portion of the building to another vendor, one that sells vegan baked goods and a coffee bar. I've visited many Trader Joes in several states, Whole Foods and other organic grocery markets as well. If they want it, they'll figure out a way to make the space work. I say thumbs up to Trader Joes in Kent, Ohio.
Debra-Lynn Hook June 01, 2012 at 11:36 AM
To Eric M. Miller's point, check out what Wooster is doing: http://www.wksu.org/news/story/31782


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