New store in RiNo rings up mixed bag of reaction
Some welcome better access to healthy food options; others see sign of gentrification
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 Change.org 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.”
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.