New store prototype sells produce and additional groceries; June opening expected.
By Rebecca Voll, Contributor
Community leaders, elected officials, developers, company representatives, and neighbors gathered Wednesday, January 9, in the parking lot of a former church at 35th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard to break ground on the first Walgreens in the state of Colorado to feature a produce market. The new store, slated to open in June, will help address concerns about a ‘food desert’—an area where residents have to travel one mile or more for access to healthy food and produce—in Northeast Denver.
“To many of our neighborhoods, including here in Clayton and Northeast Park Hill, we have challenges, and access to convenient grocery stores and fresh foods is clearly one of those challenges,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “From high obesity rates to chronic health problems and even higher unemployment rates, food deserts have serious consequences in our community. Our choices about food should not depend on where we happen to live in this city or anywhere in this nation.”
Hancock said that the redevelopment of the now-abandoned Bethsaida Temple faced numerous logistical challenges, but he acknowledged city officials, Edgemark Development and managing partner Richard Sapkin, Walgreens, and District 8 City Councilman Albus Brooks for working together to overcome them. “These folks had to work their tails off to make sure that this project got done. There were roadblocks after roadblocks, and they worked on every one of them diligently,” he said.
Brooks said that the Walgreens project was crucial to the community because the area of 55,000 residents, many of whom are low-income or elderly with limited access to transportation, currently has only one grocery store. He told the crowd that he understands the personal impact of a food desert, “My five-year-old son has a shorter life expectancy because he lives in this neighborhood than those kids born (where healthy food is more accessible), just because of access to healthy food.”
Zack Church, Walgreens’ real estate manager, said that while plans for the store haven’t been finalized, shoppers can expect an expanded refrigerated section and an expanded food selection. After a landmark 2006 study by the Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group increased awareness of the food desert phenomenon by exposing the lack of access to nutritious food in urban Chicago neighborhoods, Walgreens began experimenting with adding fresh produce and groceries to some of their Chicago locations. This will be the first time they have attempted the concept in Colorado.
The groundbreaking ceremony represented the culmination of over a year of work by city leaders and the developer to get the project off the ground. Brooks spearheaded the effort in response to the community’s requests for help. Unsure of how to address the problem as a legislator, he said, he decided, “I can send out letters and recruit businesses… I can talk to developers and tell the story, that we live in a food desert and we need your help. So that’s exactly what I did.”
While both Brooks and Hancock expressed optimism about progress against food deserts in Northeast Denver, they also stressed that the community must keep fighting for healthy options. “I want you to know that even with Walgreens coming, there is still a lot of work to do.