Local grocery seeking downtown Macon spot

pramati@macon.comMarch 10, 2013 

More than a year ago, Steve Bell announced his plans to open Ocmulgee Traders, a locally owned grocery that would be based in the College Hill Corridor section of Macon.

Since that time, Bell has altered some of his plans for the store. He’s now considering downtown instead of the corridor, but his overall concept remains the same.

“Really, not much has changed,” Bell said. “The fundraising is slow. We’ve got some (feelers) out there, but it’s just very slow to get going.”

Bell said it would take about $580,000 to launch the store, but he’s still trying to raise about $190,000 of that amount.

Because the money wasn’t there, Bell likely won’t be able to get his first choice of location, a 5,000-square-foot former bank behind the post office on College Street.

“We needed about $190,000, and we could have pulled the trigger,” he said. “But they needed a lot of repairs for that building. ... I’m not disappointed. It’s not a hindrance to us.”

Harold Causey, the real estate agent for that property, said another buyer has entered a contract and may buy it.

“The timing wasn’t ready on (Ocmulgee Traders’) finances,” Causey said.

On Ocmulgee Traders’ Facebook page, Bell has been soliciting ideas for the grocery’s location.

Bell also has been working with downtown officials about locations, though he declined to get into specifics of where he is looking.

“I’d rather not say where we’re looking at,” he said. “I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up.”

One major difference between the building at the post office and a downtown location is parking. The post office location had ample parking opportunities, but downtown parking can be at a premium.

Alex Morrison, executive director of the Macon-Bibb County Urban Development Authority, said he’s been talking with Bell about possible spots for the store. He said having a grocery within walking distance would be a huge benefit as downtown officials are adding loft spaces to attract new residents.

“We’re talking to (Ocmulgee Traders) and seeing what their needs are,” Morrison said. “There are financial considerations and all that. For attracting residents, it’s crucial to have the basic amenities that people can walk to. ... It’s good to have the full gamut of resources. It changes people’s mind-sets when you are growing in all sections.”

Bell said plans for the store itself have remained pretty much the same. After holding a community meeting last year to get ideas from residents, Bell said the store will be located in a 5,000-square-foot space that would offer locally and regionally produced items for sale. However, Bell said he’s reached an agreement with a Statesboro-based distributor to supply the store with the basics all customers need when they grocery shop.

“We’re going to make sure we have all the staples, but we’ll also have the specialty items people have asked for, like organic (fruits and vegetables) and grass-fed beef,” Bell said. “We want to try to make this a destination and not just a grocery store. We want to give it an old-world market feel.”

Though having a grocery store in the College Hill neighborhood predates even the master plan, Nadia Osman, director of revitalization and business initiatives for the College Hill Alliance, said she’s not disappointed to see the business relocate to downtown.

Osman noted that Ocmulgee Traders has always been a private venture and that the alliance provided support for it but wasn’t a partner in the venture itself.

She said College Hill residents will still benefit even if the store is downtown.

“I’m excited to see it move forward,” she said. “I’m happy to see it open, whether it’s in the corridor or downtown.”

Bell said he’s still receiving a lot of community support, and now it’s a matter of securing the remaining capital needed to open the store once the site is chosen. He hasn’t set a time line as to when it might open.

“When it comes to funding, it kind of happens when it happens,” he said. “Investors tend to take their sweet time. But we’ll be happy when it opens -- whenever that is.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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