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Where Is Ellwood Thompson’s?

December 17th, 2009 · 2 Comments · Posted in food news

A new source for local produce, still MIA

A new source for local produce, still MIA

The sign in the window says to expect a new grocer in Columbia Heights in “Fall 2009.” But fall is almost over and the big space in the DCUSA mall at 14th and Irving streets NW where Ellwood Thompson’s supermarket is supposed to locate is still empty. What gives?

Ellwood Thompson’s, in case you’ve never heard, is a relatively small grocer with one store in Richmond that specializes in locally grown and organic foods. Locating such a store in the middle of our Columbia Heights neighborhood here in the District of Columbia would seem to be not just a great shopping opportunity for the increasingly hip, young and monied local residents, but a boon to local farmers and Washington-area agriculture.

Yet not everyone is happy about it. Some food access advocates have been using Ellwood Thompson’s as a kind of whipping boy for their concerns over a  dearth of supermarkets in poorer parts of the city, especially east of the Anacostia River. Who needs Ellwood Thomspon’s when there’s a Giant just two blocks away, and a Target (yes, they even cite the convenience aisles in Target) in the very same mall? And let’s not forget the farmers market in nearby Mt. Pleasant. (Unfortunately, the farmers market is only open four hours a week on Saturdays during the season, and closed December through April.)

These naysayers are especially miffed that a special tax break was extended to Ellwood Thompson’s that they say should only go to stores in needier areas. This last concern appears to be based on a misreading of D.C. tax law–or perhaps on a law that no longer exists.

In 1981, the D.C. Council passed a law granting special tax status (D.C. Code 47-3801)–no local property taxes for 10 years (D.C. Code 47-1002(23))–to new or largely refurbished supermarkets that locate in “underserved areas.” These were described as any one-square-mile area where there are fewer than two supermarkets for every 10,000 residents, or no supermarkets at all, regardless of the number of people. In the year 2000, however, the Council replaced the “underserved areas” language with a long list of designated development zones around the city (D.C. Code 47-3801)–including the area surrounding the new Metro station in Columbia Heights–where the tax break for new or refurbished supermarkets would be extended.

Thus, Ellwood Thompson, which would be located less than a block from the Metro, was automatically eligible for the tax break. And according to Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), the deal to bring the grocer to Columbia Heights never would have worked without it. There was just one problem, Graham said. The original law was designed for free-standing supermarkets. Ellwood Thompson’s was moving into a space in a mall. Unless the law were somehow changed, the tax break would go to the owner of the mall, then be divided among all of the mall’s other clients–Target, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Marshall’s, Best Buy, Staples and many others.

Graham introduced an amendment (pdf) that would allow the tax break to flow directly to Ellwood Thompson’s.

“We’re very anxious to have them. It’s a great compliment to Giant,” said Graham. “Organic food stores have always worked well alongside a traditional food store…I think they’re going to be unbelievably successful.”

Graham doesn’t buy the notion that the tax break should be reserved for poor areas of the city. Above all, he said, there must be a grocer willing to locate in those areas in order to use the tax break. “You can’t manufacture the grocery store interest. There has to be an interest to go with the tax incentive.”

Ellwood Thompson’s owner, Rick Hood, said he is anxious to move to Columbia Heights and take advantage of the Washington area’s agricultural assets, something that does not exist to quite such an extent in Richmond.

The store builds relationships with small to mid-size farmers who use natural and sustainable practices to grow their products. For instance, Ellwood Thompson’s features meats from Polyface Farm’s Joel Salatin, the libertarian Virginia farmer made famous by Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. They buy fresh tofu from Twin Oaks, an alternative community in Louisa, Virginia. In winter, Ellwood Thompson’s supplements locally grown vegetables with organics grown in California. But Hood is eager to provide a venue for Washington’s locally grown winter produce as well–as long as it’s not from greenhouses that use too much energy for heat.

Hood said the company’s approach extends to supporting local businesses of all kinds–cheese makers, sign makers, bankers. “Whenever we have a choice between dealing with a local business, we like the idea of trying to keep the money within the community rather than give it to companies that are not local. We’re trying to avoid the nationals if we can,” although you will find national brands of organic and vegan products in the store’s grocery aisles.

The grocer’s commitment to local extends to a community garden near the Richmond store where store employees volunteer time with customers and local residents to grow food.

Which brings us back to the original question: When will Ellwood Thompson’s open its store in Columbia Heights?

It sounds like the recession has posed a speed bump, and maybe Hood is looking for a little break on his rent.

“We’re making progress. We’re working with the developer,” Hood said. “We’ve had this recessionary change, and there’s a reluctance on the part of the developer to make any change in the economic structure of the rent…There’s a really good chance we will work it out.”

Any issues with getting financing? “We’ve made progress there.”

As residents of Columbia Heights and supporters of local food, we certainly do hope it gets worked out.

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