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Myers Groups' interest good sign for Juneau shoppers

Posted: August 5, 2012 - 12:10am

A few months ago, all of Juneau seemed to exhale with shocked sounds when word arrived that the Alaskan & Proud grocery store downtown was going to close in the fall. A&P, and its predecessor Foodland, have occupied the space in the Foodland Center for many decades, certainly since I first came to Juneau in 1991 to work as a legislative aide. The idea of there not being any place to buy a general array of groceries at the southern end of Alaska’s capital city is striking and alarming.

There had been rumors of A&P’s going away for months before the actual announcement provided confirmation of this unwelcome truth. But only when it was firmly stated did most Juneauites realize the ramifications: the loss of 40 jobs, a giant vacant space in an already less than fully-used commercial building, and most importantly, no place to buy food and other very basic supplies for daily life without driving seven miles out to the ‘big-box’ stores in Lemon Creek and the Mendenhall Valley.

Yes, prices at A&P were higher than those at Fred Meyer, Safeway, and certainly more than at Costco. Still, it is convenient, and A&P has a very good prepared-food deli, baked goods to rival any in town, and often better produce than any other food retailer. Many people in Thane, Douglas, and downtown who relied on the larger stores out the road for the vast majority of their food purchases, still would go to A&P for discrete items, saving untold gallons of gas for ten-mile round-trips not taken to get a can of Old Bay seasoning or some wheat flour. A&P was also community-minded, giving credit to non-profits for a percentage of purchase receipts saved and submitted by shoppers, and hosting the annual food-bank prison fundraiser broadcast by the Juneau Radio Center. That sort of local spirit will be missed.

Who knows the whole story as to why A&P is going away while its owners continue to operate at the southern end of Southeast in Ketchikan … apparently the building owners proposed long-term increases that A&P couldn’t countenance. Whatever the reason, it was a business decision made between two independent economic actors which doesn’t appear likely to be reversed. Juneau’s future does not include A&P, but it perhaps may still avoid a giant empty hole in the largest commercial property downtown.

A group of Juneau residents decided to investigate establishing a food co-operative in the A&P space soon after becoming aware of the incumbent’s pending demise. While not involved in their efforts, I was impressed that they were willing to acknowledge the significant reduction in quality of life likely to occur if A&P just went away and nothing replaced it. At the same time, it was hard to see how a group of volunteers could marshal the resources – in time, money, entrepreneurial vision, and management capacity – to be the new grocer. The Parkshore Homeowners Association Board (of which I’m president) wrote a letter of support at the request of the co-op steering committee, because of the direct lack of access to needed alimentary supplies that would face Parkshore residents, especially older ones who don’t drive, at least not year-round. The steering committee set about trying to find a solution to this pending crisis, an admirable goal even if it was a very long shot to make.

It now appears that the market for groceries in Juneau is vital enough that a more conventional private-sector development may ameliorate the situation. The Myers Group, a firm from the State of Washington, has publicly expressed its serious interest in taking over A&P’s operations, assuming the current lease and retaining many if not all of the current employees. Myers is not a public-traded entity, but it appears to operate a fairly diverse array of successful business, and touts its own very low employee turnover rate. Its owners have stated their commitment to providing a top-drawer array of products while improving the existing store’s infrastructure. This is an exciting development all of Juneau will be closely watching.

Quality of life in Alaska has moved forward by leaps and bounds in my four and half decades of life here on the Last Frontier. The idea of getting fresh spices or a papaya is not exotic, fanciful, or terribly self-indulgent today in Juneau (even though it still may be in remote rural Alaska). We must ensure that Juneau’s economic health remains strong enough that things like the end of A&P don’t point to a darker, less livable future here.

• Brown serves as Chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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