New store in RiNo rings up mixed bag of re­ac­tion

Some wel­come bet­ter ac­cess to healthy food op­tions; oth­ers see sign of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Danika Wor­thing­ton

RiNo fi­nally has a gro­cery store again. And while com­mu­nity lead­ers wel­come a new source in an area with lit­tle ac­cess to healthy food op­tions, there have been di­verse in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what the store sig­nals. On one hand, Thurs­day’s open­ing of the new Nat­u­ral Gro­cers is a top­ping-off of re­vi­tal­iza­tion. On the other, it’s the lat­est — al­most pre­dictable — sign of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.

“We’ve al­ways tried to look at ar­eas where there are food deserts and look to see whether or not it’s vi­able for us to go in and help pro­vide nat­u­ral and or­ganic,” said Heather Isely, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Nat­u­ral Gro­cers by Vi­ta­min Cot­tage.

“Food desert” is used to de­scribe an area lack­ing easy ac­cess to fresh food.

Food-ac­cess ad­vo­cates have started to push for the term “food swamp,” say­ing it’s not a lack of food but rather an over­satura- tion of un­healthy choices, such as fast food.

Nat­u­ral Gro­cers’ for­mer home on 15th and Platte streets is be­ing knocked down for re­de­vel­op­ment, prompt­ing the move to a new build­ing at East Brighton Boule­vard and 38th Street on the edge of the quickly chang­ing RiNo Art District.

Isely said the River North area fits the com­pany’s cri­te­ria for a new lo­ca­tion. It’s in an area with poor food ac­cess and is home to a key de­mo­graphic: peo­ple who are in­ter­ested in nat­u­ral food and tend to be col­lege ed­u­cated. Ad­di­tion­ally, a pe­ti­tion two years ago called for a health-fo­cused re­tailer in North­east Den­ver and listed Nat­u­ral Gro­cers as the top choice.

RiNo is his­tor­i­cally the in­dus­trial cor­ri­dor con­nect­ing Five Points, Cole, Globeville and Elyria Swansea neigh­bor­hoods, RiNo Art District cre­ative di­rec­tor and long­time res­i­dent Tracy Weil said.

Lately, the neigh­bor­hood has un­der­gone a de­mo­graphic switch, lur­ing younger and wealth­ier res­i­dents whose in­ter­est in the area has led to sky­rock­et­ing hous­ing costs.

“Ev­ery­body needs a gro­cery store, right, for those quick items that you need or if you have an art open­ing and you need to get those grapes,” Weil said.

The area is try­ing to at­tract more lo­cal busi­nesses, such as Lake­wood-based Nat­u­ral Gro­cers, to help with its re­de­vel­op­ment, Weil said. He com­pli­mented the store for reach­ing out to the art district, putting mu­rals on its build­ing and gen­er­ally try­ing to fit in — which is es­pe­cially im­por­tant for a new­comer to the rapidly chang­ing neigh­bor­hood.

The store aligns with the cur­rent pitch of RiNo as a walk­a­ble and bike­able neigh­bor­hood, Weil said. A gro­cer topped the list of ameni­ties still needed to fill out the area — a list that in­cluded dry clean­ing and liquor stores.

But Weil — and oth­ers — were cau­tious about the store’s price point, say­ing af­ford­abil­ity is a com­mon is­sue when new busi­nesses come in.

Nat­u­ral Gro­cers’ Is­ley said the com­pany is keenly aware of af­ford­abil­ity.

Isely’s par­ents, Mar­garet and Philip Isely, were poor when they started the busi­ness, us­ing a $200 loan from Mar­garet’s mother. The two sold bread and nutri­tional sup­ple­ments door to door in a blue-col­lar neigh­bor­hood where Coors was the ma­jor em­ployer.

But oth­ers were wary. “Nat­u­ral Gro­cers would never have been put there with­out that de­vel­op­ment go­ing there,” said Damien Thomp­son, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at Regis Uni­ver­sity who has done a lot of work around food swamps and lives in the neigh­bor­hood.

“It’s was prob­a­bly pretty pre­dictable at some point that was go­ing to hap­pen,” he added. “When those stores start to come in, to me, usu­ally that’s a sig­nal of the mid­dle to the end of this process of neigh­bor­hood change, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion.”

New res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion has cre­ated pop­u­la­tion den­sity great enough to sup­port the store, said Bev­erly Grant, founder of Mo’ Betta Green Mar­ket­Place in Five Points. But there is still a need for other cre­ative food so­lu­tions to pick up where the gro­cer leaves off, in terms of both price and lo­ca­tion.

“It’s ex­cit­ing be­cause it’s pro­vid­ing an op­tion that does not ex­ist,” she said. “For Whit­tier, Cole, Clay­ton, it’s rel­a­tively close but it’s not walk­ing dis­tance. Yes, peo­ple are ex­cited. Yes, the store will be sup­ported. It’s not go­ing to be a new big ma­jor so­lu­tion but it is a so­lu­tion and it is one that needs to ex­ist.”

Seth Mc­Connell, The Den­ver Post

Jesse Gomez stocks herbs at Den­ver’s new Nat­u­ral Gro­cers on Wed­nes­day in prepa­ra­tion for the store’s of­fi­cial open­ing Thurs­day. The store will pro­vide the RiNo neigh­bor­hood much-needed ac­cess to healthy food op­tions.

Tri­cia Towey laughs with a co-worker at Nat­u­ral Gro­cers.

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