BRADENTON -- When Werner Beck began floating his idea for a downtown grocery store, he expected to receive strong support from city development officials.
After all, planners hired by the city had been talking for years about how a downtown grocery would increase foot traffic and likely attract more residents. Beck often heard customers at Beck’s Bistro talk about how a downtown grocery would save them from driving several miles after work for eggs, a birthday card or a quart of milk.
And just two months ago, the city’s Downtown Development Authority had authorized $250,000 to attract a restaurant to downtown -- about six times the amount Beck was seeking for his proposed specialty grocery store on 12th Street West.
So the “lukewarm reception” Beck says he received from the DDA in several meetings over recent months has left him confused and frustrated.
“I told them very clearly that I’ve already invested $160,000 of my own money downtown and haven’t asked for a single cent, and that I think it’s about time the city comes forward,” said Beck, founder of Beck’s Bistro and Cool Beans. “But the city, from the beginning, was not very receptive to my whole idea. I think they should have looked a bit closer and given me a little bit more help.”
The opportunity Beck was pursuing for a downtown grocery store has now passed. He found out Wednesday that the location he had in mind -- the suite next to his Beck’s Bistro in the Arcade downtown -- will instead be rented to a clothing store.
But his experience has encouraged DDA officials to move their focus on guidelines for retail incentives to “the front burner,” DDA board Chair Will Robinson said Wednesday.
“Werner’s idea sounds like an exciting prospect for our downtown,” Robinson said. “But we have to vet every single opportunity fairly and make sure everyone seeking some sort of incentive package gets a fair and full opportunity.”
The topic of retail incentive guidelines will come up twice next week when the DDA meets at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and when the city council meets with the DDA and other redevelopment officials at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Beck had asked the DDA for about $35,000 to transform 740 square feet near his bistro into a specialty market similar to Morton’s Market in Sarasota.
While Beck is the only local business to ask the DDA’s help with a downtown grocery store, “dozens” of other retail businesses have approached the DDA for incentives since February, Robinson said.
That’s when the authority voted to offer $250,000 in incentives -- to be provided over four years -- to Ezra Cafe to relocate to downtown. When community members and some city council members objected to the incentives, Ezra backed out of its planned relocation and turned down the incentives.
But Robinson said the controversy generated by the DDA’s decision started the authority and the city council that oversees it down a path of creating guidelines for offering retail incentives. The DDA typically provides incentives only for facade renovations, he said.
Robinson hopes Beck will keep his goal of a downtown grocery store alive so that the DDA can consider his idea once its retail incentive guidelines are determined. Other community leaders also hope the idea stays alive.
“Certainly, a grocery is a key component in the area if we’re going to be successful in attracting additional residents, which is what we’re trying to do for the downtown area,” said Robert Bartz, president of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.
“One of the components of having a liveable, walkable downtown community is to have a grocery store,” said Bradenton City Council member Marianne Barnebey. “It’s one of those necessities of life.”
“There are a lot of people downtown who would love to be able to run somewhere and get fresh fruit or something for lunch instead of going to a restaurant,” said Chris Merritt, assistant controller of Mike Carter Construction, located downtown.
Whether or not a grocery store comes to downtown, plans are proceeding for a chain grocery to be established closer to downtown than existing stores which are about three miles away. Sherod Halliburton, executive director of the Central Community Redevelopment Agency, said Wednesday he expects the CCRA will reach an agreement with a developer within 45 days for a major chain grocery store at the corner of U.S. 41 and U.S. 301, about a half-mile from downtown. That grocery likely will be supported through a federal grant of up to $750,000, he said.
“The market, in the end, will determine whether it’s viable to have two new grocery stores,” Halliburton said. “But based on the fact that there’s a tremendous hole in the marketplace right now, I think it will be viable.”