citybeat (2007-04)

Developer LeRoy Thompson considers the future of Five Points

Wednesday, Jan. 17

After the Grocery

The Metro Village Market many had hoped would be a locus of new economic activity in the Five Points area has been scaled back to a large convenience market, gas station and deli. But owner/developer LeRoy Thompson hasn't given up the idea that the Five Points Village Plaza could yet become a focal point for inner city rehabilitation.

"No one said redevelopment is easy," Thompson says. "The grocery store was only one of several ideas that had potential. It's time to regroup and look at the positive things we have achieved there. Let's not stop because we've hit a bump in the road."

Metro Village opened in the early part of 2006, a key component of the city's Five Points Redevelopment plan for the neighborhood at the intersection of Martin Luther King, Olive, McCalla and Ben Hur. But traffic at the store over the ensuing months was insufficient to support a continuing full-scale grocery operation, so the grocery scaled back to a large convenience market in November of last year. The convenience market takes up less than 5,000 square feet of the former grocery store, according to Thompson, leaving around 15,000 square feet of space that can be made available to new tenants. New architectural designs call for the presently unused portions of the former grocery to be repartitioned.

According to Thompson, new tenancies could take many forms. "It could be office, retail, medical, a call center," he says. "We'll market aggressively. If those ideas don't work, we'll go for small shops, like salons or delis or whatever. We want something that economically stimulates the area."

Why the grocery failed to survive is a thorny question, one that has left some observers puzzled, and caused others to be critical and dismissive of the whole endeavor. Thompson has his own ideas.

"It's a complex question, why things didn't work out," he says. "I think those of us involved could have done a better job educating the community what this means to the total area. This is an area that has been blighted, that people stayed away from for 25 years, and old habits die hard. We just assumed that if you make it nice and convenient, people will come."

In the end, Thompson says, the store was consistently patronized by residents in the immediate vicinity, but not so much by those in outlying communities such as Holston Hills, Park City, and Burlington.

"I don't think we did a good job of tying the success of the Plaza into the economic development of the community," he says. "We didn't educate people how its success could impact themselves, their kids, the broader community. It was perceived as just a grocery store rather than as an important center of economic development. I got into this to rebuild communities, not because I wanted to be Mr. Piggly Wiggly."

Thompson adds that "the minority population is spread out in Knoxville, and for this store to succeed, we need overwhelming support from minorities. For whatever reason, we didn't get that."

Thompson stresses the need to "look at our victories" in assessing the future of Five Points Plaza.

"Just because the grocer isn't there, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater," he says. "Let's look at what we've accomplished. We've cleaned up an area that used to be full of drug trafficking, crime and prostitution, and we've produced over $1.5 million in sales tax in what had been a goose egg over the last 25 years. So the grocery store didn't work. Let's look at another proposal."



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