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Mt. Hope: What's in store

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Talk about a slogan with a place-name that works. "Meet Me on Mt. Hope" tells you where to go, in a very positive way, and how to feel.

            The invitation will soon make a monumental debut.

            Artist Achille Forgione Jr., whose studio is on Mt. Hope Avenue just south of Crittenden Boulevard, recently received a grant to create metal "silhouettes" to adorn light poles along the thoroughfare. He says he's also working on a "welcoming sign" with the neighborhood slogan. The sign will be installed on Mt. Hope near Westfall Road, where the city of Rochester meets the town of Brighton.

            Forgione says he's had his studio at this location for 22 years. In that time, he says, mostly "positive changes" have occurred in the Upper Mt. Hope area. He views it with an artist's eye: "St. Anne's Church becomes more beautiful all the time," he says. But he mentions a new bank across from his studio, too.

Thus the sacred and profane mix along Mt. Hope. That's not to say profanity --- though some people may have resorted to this after hearing the latest news. Just before Labor Day, Wegmans Food Markets announced it would close its Mt. Hope store, at the corner of Crittenden Boulevard. The decision will cause one of the neighborhood's hopes --- a general feeling that the area needs a booster --- to go south.

            Wegmans spokesperson Jo Natale says the store will be shuttered by Thanksgiving. Two weeks' notice will be given before the actual closing date, she says.

            Why this decision now? The store, says Natale, "has been operating at a loss for some time." The decision is a 180-degree turnaround: As recently as spring 2003, stakeholders in the area assumed Wegmans was about to renovate and upgrade the store.

            "We indeed had pursued a plan to remodel and do a modest expansion," says Natale. But this simply "didn't work out," she says. The costs of renovation, she says, "were much higher than we originally estimated... In designing the store, we realized how limited the size and selection would be." The site also didn't allow for expanded parking, she says.

            Some Wegmans critics have pointed to the success of the company's East Avenue store, which is located near another section of the Brighton town line. Like Wegmans' other city outlets (there are now just three, the third being on Driving Park Avenue), the East Avenue store draws users of public transportation and pedestrians as well as motorists. If East Avenue can make it, ask the critics, why not Mt. Hope?

            Natale says it's a matter of capacity. The Mt. Hope store "is less than half the size of East Avenue," she says. Moreover, she says, Mt. Hope shoppers tend to "pick up convenience items but do their major shopping elsewhere."

            So where does Wegmans go from here?

            First, there's the matter of jobs: "All of the employees [at Mt. Hope] will be offered jobs at other stores," says Natale. She says the company is looking at other potential sites not far from Upper Mt. Hope. Top on the list is the state-owned Rochester Psychiatric Center property on Elmwood Avenue, near the intersection of South Goodman. "We have expressed interest in the property" to state and city officials, Natale says.

            Will Wegmans consider selling the Mt. Hope store to another operator? "It would be unlikely," says Natale, "that we would sell it or lease it to another food store."

All this is news, as we've said, to the neighborhood.

            According to the spring 2003 issue of the Upper Mt. Hope Neighbors newsletter (see www.umhn.com), residents and company representatives sat down last March and discussed the renovation plan in detail. The newsletter published an engineer's drawing of the new store. The drawing indicated the store would be expanded by around 50 percent, to 34,000 square feet. The design, says the newsletter, included amenities like a sushi bar, a café, and streetside landscaping.

            The UMHN was under the impression that work would be completed by mid-2004.

            Then in the waning days of August: bang.

            "They came to us as an organization and suggested we host a public presentation on what their layout would be for the new store," recalls Bob Good, UMHN president. "They came with a big show, a Power Point presentation, elevations. They gave us the timeframe, and that's the last we heard."

            Good says he's now skeptical about company claims that a new, expanded store won't work at the current site. He also has a theory about why the present store declined: "They put out an inferior product over the last years, so it got a tepid response from the community."

            Like other neighbors, Good points out that the University of Rochester River Campus and Medical Center --- and particularly places like Goler House, which sits just behind the current Wegmans --- offer a steady customer base. But he puts emphasis on social concerns, too. "There's a larger picture of a fabric of community that they [i.e. Wegmans] are a part of. A good, solid grocery store is key to a neighborhood, a tremendous public-health good."

            Kitty-corner to Wegmans Mt. Hope sits South Presbyterian Church, which has its own relationship with the store.

            Pastor Jamie Kenyon, a 19th Ward resident who shops at the Brooks-Chili and Pittsford Wegmans as well as at Mt. Hope, explains. "We have members who don't have transportation and walk here," she says. "They use the store as their sole resource for food. I will take someone [to the store] if they come to the door and need food to take to the shelter."

            If the store were renovated, says Kenyon, "more of my parishioners would shop there. I'd be really surprised if [the store] didn't prosper."

            She sums up: "There are times when you make a commitment to a community because it's the right thing to do."

But what if Wegmans moves to the Psych Center property on Elmwood? Wouldn't that be a win-win solution? After all, the Elmwood site is just a bit more than a half-mile from Mt. Hope.

            There are problems with this, however. First, say some critics, the distance to the Psych Center site from the River Campus and the Strong Neighborhood is not walkable enough. And besides, they say, the Tops Friendly Market on South Clinton between Elmwood and Westfall already covers that general area. (The prospect of more head-to-head competition with Tops might attract Wegmans there, of course.)

            Then there's the question of appropriateness. The Psych Center property sits across from residential neighborhoods and a section of Highland Park, not to mention some contested open-space immediately to the south. A similar situation exists in the town of Henrietta, where Calkins Road-area neighbors are concerned about plans for a Wegmans superstore across from their homes.

            Nancy Wrobel, a member of the Azalea Neighbors, which represents the residential area across from the Psych Center, says her group hasn't fully processed the issue yet. "We're all trying to keep in touch with each other," she says. "The people who have called me have been upset" about the closing plan as well as Wegmans' possible move to Elmwood, she says.

            Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson says both the Psych Center property and the Iola Campus at Westfall and East Henrietta roads are "problematic." (The Iola site is on the Wegmans wish list, too.) The company, says Johnson, "has actually coveted the [Psych Center] site for some time." But "bringing a commercial development" to the Iola site "would create all sorts of traffic problems," he says. He notes that traffic planners are already working on existing traffic congestion there.

            Johnson says he and other officials are meeting regularly with Wegmans management. But essentially, he says, this "is a private market decision." The company, he says, doesn't have the responsibility of assuring grocery services in any neighborhood. "To be fair to Wegmans," he says, "they don't build small stores; their model is to build superstores" of 100,000 square feet, not 30,000 or 40,000.

            City officials, says Johnson, also have been speaking to University administrators to see if Wegmans could expand the existing store and parking lot onto University-owned land at Elmwood and Mt. Hope. He mentions a "third option," too: Wegmans "could actually sell the site to another supermarket, if they're willing to reconsider," he says.

            "We're going to be working very aggressively," says Johnson. Wegmans executives, he says, "don't want to be perceived as uncaring. They are talking. They're not closed-minded. Their corporate social responsibility has to be re-engaged."

Some people view developments from the trenches --- or rather, the sidewalks.

            One such is Doc Weinberg, a pedestrian, bicyclist, and self-employed person who lives off Mt. Hope a few blocks north of Elmwood. "I've been shopping at Wegmans for 18 years," he says. "It would be a great inconvenience and expense," he says, if the store were closed. "I'd have to pay for a cab to go to Tops," he says.

            How about the Psych Center site? "I would probably walk to that," Weinberg concedes. But he obviously prefers the current store. "A lot of people badmouth this Wegmans, but it suits my needs ideally."

            If Wegmans carries out the plan to close Mt. Hope, some people will be brainstorming options beyond the ordinary.

            For example, Jon Greenbaum, a Metro Justice staffer who's been a produce manager at both the former Genesee Co-op Foodstore and a Wegmans suburban branch, wonders if an independently owned IGA store might be cultivated. Though it's actually global in reach, IGA is a network of affiliated stores under local control. "The world doesn't need more supermarkets," says an IGA puff promo. "It needs more Community Centers... a community hub owned and operated by the very people who know the area best, the citizens."

            This angle requires an attitude change, and Greenbaum provides. "Good riddance to Wegmans," he says. "This is a challenge for the city, an opportunity to create a community-owned market."

            He recalls that in the 1930s, a "second wave" of cooperatively owned and operated stores were opened across the country. These co-ops, he says, "were set up by immigrants" and "are still functioning." (The Upper Midwest, for example, was a proving ground for producer and consumer co-ops dealing in everything from plywood to groceries; the co-ops flourished among Scandinavian and other immigrant groups steeped in the philosophy. Food co-ops of this sort are not necessarily natural-food stores; they're often quite traditional, apart from their ownership structure.)

            Here some critics say Wegmans would compete --- read: underprice --- a community-owned store to death. But the same dynamic would affect any store that trespassed on Wegmans', or any chain's, self-defined turf.

            But if Wegmans' does close the Mt. Hope store, a pattern will almost be complete. In recent years, the company has abandoned stores at Midtown Plaza and on Culver Road near Bay Street. The former re-opened under new ownership; the Culver Road site now is home to a big-box drug store.

            In April 2003, not long after conferring with the Upper Mt. Hope Neighbors, Wegmans announced the opening of its 65th store --- in suburban Downington, Pennsylvania.

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