When two grocery stores in the same part of Cocoa closed within a week of each other earlier this year, residents and city officials alike were concerned.
Questions flowed into City Hall: What about the safety of those who walk or use scooters to get to a store in this low-income area, especially seniors? Where can they easily shop now? Can anyone out there help?
Now, in a turnaround that’s made a lot of people very happy, the Save a Lot grocery store on Dixon Boulevard has reopened just two months after shutting its doors.
On April 13, the Cocoa City Council voted to authorize the city manager to use American Rescue Plan Act funding to help the owners of Save a Lot get the business back on its feet. The agreement will offer economic assistance funding up to the maximum amount of $450,000, with eligible expenses including restocking, outstanding invoices, capital repairs, rental assistance, and wages.
With about 13% of Cocoa’s population not owning a vehicle, having a place to shop for affordable, nutritious, quality food within walking distance is crucial citywide, said Mayor Mike Blake.
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Officials worked, he said, to avoid the area becoming a food desert, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture as “a low-income census tract where at least 500 people, or 33% of the population, live at least 1 mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.”
“With these funds, we’re addressing the needs of the people, and a community concern,” Blake said. “I think the continued relationship the business will have with the community is very important. Everyone has a little piece of the skin in the game, which I think is imperative.”
Save a Lot had been plagued by financial and supply problems before it closed March 27. That was followed the first weekend in April by the departure of a Harveys store, owned by Southeastern Grocers, a half-mile away at Dixon Boulevard and Clearlake Road.
The sheer volume of phone calls about the stores’ closings showed the need for quick action, Blake said, “and I’m happy to say we were able to rescue one.”
A Friday event welcomed community members for a ribbon-cutting with store owners, city officials and a representative from Save a Lot’s corporate team. The official celebration started at 4 p.m. But by 8 a.m., locals who’d heard via social media or word of mouth about the reopening were stopping by. Eight hours later, a steady stream of shoppers dropped in.
Mike Medearis, owner for the past 13 years, said almost everyone who had worked at Save a Lot has been rehired.
“We’re very blessed that the city would come through and help us open back up,” said Medearis, who greeted guests with his son, Mark.
“We knew what it was doing to the community, closing down. But we just couldn’t keep it open with what’s going on; COVID and supply issues. We were able to get some of those cleared up and the city helped us out.”
Virgie Prude has lived in the neighborhood near Save a Lot for 53 years. Friday, as she loaded frozen food into her cart, she said the reopening is good for a neighborhood where many must walk to the store and older residents in a nearby senior housing community use scooters to go shopping.
“It’s a blessing. We have to thank our president for this,” Prude said. “Both of the stores closing up at the same time, it was hard on the people who live close by.”
This agreement is, said Blake, “absolutely” a good use of the federal funding, fitting into the category designated for assisting small businesses that have suffered during COVID.
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Many people struggle to make ends meet in this area of Brevard County. The 2016 ALICE Report — ALICE meaning Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — released by United Way examined households that earn more than the federal poverty level, but less than the basic cost of living for the county. In Cocoa, that’s 59%.
The 13-page agreement between the city and Save a Lot states, in part, that the store is in a “vitally important commercial plaza which not only serves the community but serves economically disadvantaged neighborhoods within the City of Cocoa with higher poverty rates and low mobility rates.”
The funding is a deferred loan, meaning no interest will accrue on the principal of the total award amount, and payment to the city will be deferred during the five-year agreement. The loan depreciates at 20% each year, and at the end of five years, will be forgiven in its entirety as long as store owners are in compliance with all terms and conditions of the agreement.
The outdoor shopping center Save a Lot is part of is owned by Celebration Tabernacle Church, which bought the property for more than $2.1 million in 2014.
Errol Beckford, Celebration’s pastor, said the reopening “brings joy to the community” to those who’ve seen Save a Lot as a staple of neighborhood life for years.
“They’re very happy, because it’s their store,” he said. “And when it’s closed, it’s like a part of your life closed. I believe it was the greatest thing, with that COVID money, to put some life back into this community.”
Contact Kennerly at 321-242-3692 or email@example.com. Twitter: @bybrittkennerly Facebook: /bybrittkennerly.
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