John Belcher has a simple dream: to walk down his street to a neighborhood natural foods market and buy cheese.
Belcher, co-chair of the River Road Community organization, is working with members of the River Road neighborhood and building owner Lutfi Thabet to bring a much-needed grocery store to an area of Eugene with few options in terms of healthy, fresh produce.
“This is a neighborhood that has a strong interest in being able to walk and bike to stores,” Belcher says. “That’s not really available to us now. Within the de facto definition of the neighborhood, other than Grocery Outlet, we only have convenience stores, and they have a purpose, but that’s not where you do your once-a-week grocery shopping.”
The closest grocery stores include Fred Meyer and Albertsons about a mile and a half away, although they’re technically in Santa Clara, not the River Road neighborhood. Red Barn Natural Grocery is about 2 miles away, and The Kiva is 3 miles away.
The nearby Trainsong neighborhood is federally considered a food desert, Belcher says, with even fewer grocery options.
Belcher says he hopes that an empty building at 1015 River Road will fill the community gap. He points to a 2008 survey conducted by the University of Oregon’s Community Planning Workshop, which found that members of the River Road community said they would bike and walk more often if more products, services and activities were available close by.
Lutfi Thabet, president of Thabet Management, Inc. and owner of local convenience store franchise Buy 2, bought the building, formerly a Goodwill and a McKay’s Market before that, in hopes of collaborating with a River Road business owner to open a restaurant and café. That idea didn’t pan out, but Thabet still plans to pursue a natural foods store in the spot.
Currently, Thabet and Belcher are looking for local natural foods stores that wish to expand to a new location. They haven’t found anyone yet, but say they will continue to seek partnerships over the next few months.
Alternatively, Thabet says, he might renovate the 10,000-square-foot building himself and open his own natural foods store — he’s already met with a contractor and an architect, and a preliminary layout shows how the former Goodwill building could be converted, with a growler station, bakery, produce section and delicatessen, offset by a dining area.
“We want to see if we can do a kind of miniature Market of Choice,” Thabet says.
In the 2008 survey, many River Road community members expressed their desire for more access to healthy, local food as well as safer crossings and bikeways along River Road.
“Local grocery stores with good healthy products and fresh produce are much needed,” one survey respondent wrote.
“Even though Fred Meyer and Santa Clara Square are not that far away, it is definitely not a bike-friendly ride to get there,” wrote another respondent.
If unable to find a partner, Thabet says he plans to start renovation this winter.
“We are still open to all options,” Thabet says. “We want to be very good citizens of that community, and we want to do what’s right. Hopefully we can do something that will make the neighborhood happy.”