Trincella Bonnet grew up feeding her neighborhood. Her father’s store, Bonnet’s, sold meat and fresh produce on the Northside long before Lafayette city limits flung southward, leaving historic neighborhoods like hers behind.
Back then, family grocery stores dominated the landscape and drove local commerce in North Lafayette, Bonnet says.
“It was prosperous, because we had a grocery store on just about every corner. We had everything we needed in the community,” Bonnet says. “We don’t have that anymore.”
As the farm manager for the McComb-Veazey Neighborhood, Bonnet is part of a movement of neighbors trying to rebuild the Northside from the grassroots. Stores like her father’s, which closed in the 1990s, have largely disappeared.
A new program aims to bring them back.
United Way of Acadiana and the Lafayette Public Trust Financing Authority are developing a fund to attract new grocery stores to Northside neighborhoods and help those already operating reinvest and expand. Lafayette Consolidated Government may chip in just under $1 million in American Rescue Plan funds, pending final adoption of the proposed budget. LPTFA is committing another $500,000 in loan support. The food desert initiative has approached Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation to secure match funding.
[Disclosure: Former United Way CEO Carlee Alm-LaBar helped develop the initiative. She serves on The Current’s board of directors.]
“People often ask, where can we put a grocery store on the Northside,” LPTFA Executive Director Kevin Blanchard says. “That’s not the right question, there’s dozens of places where you can put a grocery store, starting with some of the old grocery stores that have been vacant for a long time.”
Financing will help offset investment costs by offering low-interest or partially forgivable loans, says Blanchard. The upfront cost of building a grocery store is steeper than other retail businesses, and margins tend to be small. The risks ward off new operations and can discourage stores from remodeling or updating equipment. The initiative will help grocers buy coolers, cutting equipment, sales terminals — basically anything necessary to create a successful grocery business.
Besides equipment, funding will help stores expand their fresh produce and meat options. Convenience stores offer little more than pre-packaged food. These are often the only shops accessible to poor neighborhoods.
Low profit margins and short shelf life of produce and meats create little incentive for these stores to provide them. The stores also lack relationships with produce vendors. LPTFA is also working to set up a produce distribution network, which would give convenience stores a source.
Softening the financial risk could sprout new small-scale shops, in turn creating a domino effect, Blanchard says. Increased economic growth may likely attract larger grocery chains to reopen stores in the area.
Big box grocers, while common southwest of the Evangeline Thruway, have vanished from the Northside. Several have closed in recent years, including a Walmart and Winn Dixie. Low vehicle ownership and limited transit have stranded thousands in what researchers would consider a food desert.
More than 50% of Lafayette residents live in a census tract that meets the standard definition of food desert, notes Blanchard, including the entirety of the Northside. Thirteen percent of all Lafayette residents and a third of Louisiana’s Black residents are considered food insecure, according to Feeding America.
Besides funding, a key challenge for LPTFA and its partners is buy-in. Years of neglect have left residents cynical about revitalization efforts. Residents like Bonnet say they’ll believe it when they see it: “I’m 63 years old. And from what I’ve seen with the city, they say it’s for one thing, but it eventually goes where it’s not supposed to go.”
There are grocers and proprietors with deeply planted roots in the area. Some have watched with frustration as tax breaks and other public investments have lured grocery chains to the Southside. Blake Gallet, owner of Kirk’s U-Needa-Butcher on the Northside, wants to see North Lafayette get similar treatment.
“More funds are going to central and south [Lafayette],” Gallet says. “These big companies get 10 years of no taxes, property taxes, and our property taxes go up every year.”
He’s watched North Lafayette degrade for years, he says, as the city split in two. The Southside has taken the lion’s share of new investment as it sprawls into risky flood lands, while the Northside roads crumble and poor drainage threatens everyone. Gallet’s shop has flooded three times in the last few years.
Kirk’s U-Needa-Butcher is famous for its plate lunches and specialty meats. It’s been a fixture in McComb for more than 55 years. As a neighborhood store with deep roots, Kirk’s would be eligible for assistance from LPTFA’s food desert initiative. Gallet is skeptical the incentives will attract the chain brands some clamor for.
“I don’t see corporate America coming on the Northside. … If I could have gotten a tax break, I could have done a whole lot better,” he says.
The food initiative program is small compared with some of the tax incentive programs used elsewhere in Lafayette. But it’s part of a broader push to re-invest public resources into revitalizing Lafayette’s historic neighborhoods.
Revitalization projects aren’t new, Blanchard says. Cities like New Orleans and Baton Rouge have long had incentive programs to encourage businesses to return to older parts of the city. He sees this program as a means of lifting up the Northside economy as a whole, not just returning grocery stores to neighborhoods.
“Grocery stores are economic anchors for a neighborhood. They attract so much traffic, and that traffic attracts all sorts of businesses, places to get your haircut, doctors’ offices, clothes cleaners,” Blanchard says. “When that grocery store closes, that all goes away too.”