CH needs new approach to resolve grocery woes

There has been much discussion about grocery store issues in Cleveland Heights over the last few years, culminating around Sal Russo’s request for a $1 million city grant to update his vacant grocery store space at Cedar Fairmount.

The space was vacated when Dave’s bought out Zagara’s on Lee Road, shuttering the Dave’s on Cedar. Dave’s already operates another supermarket in the moribund Severance Circle, a mile away from its Lee Road location.

Meanwhile, northern Cleveland Heights, neglected as usual, has only a Save-A-Lot budget grocer. Better than nothing, but just one step above a genuine food desert; for full selection, northern CH residents must head to Dave’s, giving it a near-monopoly over a large section of the city, centered (as usual) on the poorest and Blackest areas. 

Why should the city give an enormous grant to a private landlord who couldn’t secure a tenant and now seeks an obviously inappropriate option in Grocery Outlet, while northern CH remains criminally underserved? Yet again we see public funds funneled into the hands of profit-seeking entities with no public obligation.

Chains like Dave’s operate on a system of continuous acquisition and consolidation to secure regional monopolies, closing redundant stores and crushing smaller options. It abandoned its longstanding location in Asiatown, just as it did at Cedar Fairmount, and we should anticipate the eventual closure of one of Dave’s CH locations, further centralizing the local grocery market in Dave’s hands.

This is a failure of our approach to solving social issues. City leaders ask profit-seeking entities to meet public needs, and, as is their nature, those businesses cut costs and abandon areas they deem insufficiently profitable, while squeezing out alternative options. We must look elsewhere for a solution to our continually degrading food options.

I propose that the city open public grocery stores, staffed by city employees receiving better wages, selling quality food at lower cost. The city need not make a profit, and so excess revenue can be reinvested into the store’s operation to improve services while reducing cost. The profits gained by grocery chains are stolen from customers and workers; we can and should eliminate this perverse incentive around essential services like the delivery of food to residents. 

Sal Russo’s family made its name not as landlords but as grocers, operating the store out of their Cedar-Fairmount space for decades. Rather than handing them a massive check with no strings attached, the city should hire Russo as an advisor, lending his grocery expertise to the operation. In this proposal, he receives reasonable compensation for valuable knowledge and a tenant who is guaranteed never to relocate. The city receives a grocery store that won’t run at the first sign of a marginally more profitable opportunity elsewhere. 

And, of course, we should not just fill the vacancy at Cedar Fairmount—a higher priority is to establish a new grocery store in Noble under the same direction and principles.

Slavish adherence to capitalism as a solution to all woes has created an insufficient service that sucks money out of the community, propped up by a mounting series of no-return public investments. This ideological blindness restrains city leadership, but it is just that—ideological, not material. There is no structural or economic reason the city couldn’t take this issue head-on and reverse decades of neoliberal decay.

Opposition comes down to two arguments: it’s too different from what’s being done, or the knowledge necessary isn’t readily available. But what’s being done is watching food quality and access degrade while prices rise, and any progressive government should bring market-dominated operations out of private hands and into public ones, where serving the public good is the only overriding incentive.

Jack Slater

Jack Slater is an eight-year resident of Cleveland Heights and an organizer with the Northeast Ohio branch of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

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Volume 17, Issue 7, Posted 7:48 AM, 06.26.2024