Downtown not the only grocery store-deprived 'food desert' needing nourishment: councillor

A report commissioned by Saskatoon city council says there are still not enough people in the downtown area to attract a grocery store.

City wants to look at revamping incentives, but Darren Hill says the city should look beyond downtown

A new report says owners are unlikely to open a new grocery store downtown until more people start living there. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

The City of Saskatoon wants to take a fresh look at its policies for attracting residential and grocery store development downtown, but one councillor says other "food deserts" in the city should get the same nourishment.

A new report completed at the city's request by the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority says that at 3,372 residents, the population of the city's central business district is not large enough to convince grocery store owners to invest in a downtown store.

SREDA spoke to eight groups for the report, which was made public yesterday. Three large grocery chains declined SREDA's invitation to take part.

Several strikes against the downtown were cited: rent and real estate costs, "safety concerns", difficulty finding an appropriate site and a feared perception that a downtown location — due to its relatively smaller size — would not be seen as a "real" or "acceptable."

All but one of the eight groups agreed, however: the "primary" holdback is the area's small population.

The City of Saskatoon says it will review its incentives for downtown residential and grocery store development, but councillor Darren Hill says other parts of the city could use the same treatment. (David Shield/CBC News)

"I could have told them that exact same stuff without having to do the research through SREDA," said Darren Hill, the councillor for Ward 2.

"I think we're going to need a significant increase in population before the major grocery retailers will consider a location downtown."

Store-specific incentives 

In response to the report, the city is calling on councillors to support the idea of re-examining policies meant to help "further incentivise residential development, and grocery development, in the downtown."

But Hill says he would only support that idea if it was extended broadly to several areas of the city, not just the downtown. He cited several areas — Sutherland, City Park, Richmond Heights and North Park — also in need of one or more grocery stores.

"There are other neighbourhoods in the city as well which would be classified as a food desert that have higher population densities than downtown," he said. "Just singling out downtown is not the best approach."

The city also wants to create a number of incentives aimed at potential grocery stores so that, "if a grocer comes forward, development of a grocery store can be expedited."

'Close to that tipping point'

Alex Fallon, the president and CEO of SREDA, is hopeful that day could come within the next five years, thanks to developments like River Landing and the World Trade Center.

"That's going to bring hundreds of people into that office space hopefully," he said. 

Alex Fallon, president and CEO of the Saskatoon Regional Economic Development Authority, which penned the downtown grocery store report. (Guy Quenneville/CBC News)

"I think we're getting close to that tipping point where one of the companies out there will realize it's getting very close in Saskatoon and maybe they want to take that risk, make that investment, get in a little bit early and secure that advantage."

Save-on-Foods opened a new grocery store in the city's young Kensington neighbourhood last month.

At the store opening, Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones said that the company plans to open three more locations in Saskatoon in the next two years, on top of a store planned for opening next year on Cumberland Avenue.

Save-On-Foods president Darrell Jones at the opening of Saskatoon's newest grocery store, in the young Kensington area. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC News)

But the company has not responded to a request for comment on where its other three stores will be located. 

Councillors will debate the findings of the downtown grocery store report on Monday.