Downtown Martinez Needs a Whole Foods (but will NEVER get one)

Downtown Martinez Needs a Whole Foods (but will NEVER get one)

Many people have opinions and post thoughts about what Downtown Martinez needs to break out of its slump. One of the more common suggestions is that we need a grocer like Whole Foods to bring more business and retail back to Main Street.  It is true that a Whole Foods is a great thing for a neighborhood.

These upscale groceries attract a desirable clientele. They provide good jobs at above average salaries and benefits. And they can draw from many miles around to bring retail traffic to shops in the area.  People popping in for organic quinoa and grass fed bison steaks will be more likely to select a fun assortment of quirky sodas at Luigis, or flowers from Char’s.  A Whole Foods would complement Downtown Martinez and help the area thrive.

A Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, or any other specialty grocery brings UP property values in the vicinity.

Research by Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff, and Stan Humphries, the company’s chief economist, shows promising results:

“Over the past 15-plus years, homes situated near specialty grocery stores reliably had higher home values than the median. The trend continues with some homes in a close radius of one of the stores. By the end of 2014, homes within 1 mile were worth more than double those in other areas.”

Though there is much debate as to the cause and effect of a Whole Foods in a neighborhood.  Is the presence of the specialty grocer pulling up values? Or have the planners and economists ant the grocer expertly found neighborhoods poised for growth based on the company’s selection process? In any case, a Whole Foods is an excellent indicator that a neighborhood is up and coming.

But, Downtown Martinez will NEVER get a Whole Foods.

The economists and geographers at Whole Foods have likely looked at every inch of California to find their next 100 locations over the next decade. They set criteria for a location that sets up the company to win, thrive, and grow.  Indeed to grow with the neighborhood.  Trader Joe’s and other high end markets have similar criteria.

Grocery stores have two tiers of population draw.  Immediate (3 miles or less) and extended (up to 20 miles).  Martinez is already well represented with several large grocery chains within 3 miles of downtown.  And within the extended sphere, Martinez is already served by Whole Food markets in Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Treat/Concord.  Plus a handful of Trader Joe’s within ten miles.

Education level is used as a proxy for income, and Whole Foods prefers an adult demographic base that is at least 60% college graduates.  Martinez is only 35.9%.

High traffic (both foot and vehicle) is required for a new store location.  This might put the Hwy 4 corridor in line for a Specialy Grocery, but downtown is a backwater of traffic flow.

Martinez has a limited supply of parking, and most of that is metered. Groceries require their lease to include dedicated free parking spaces for their patrons. The penny a minute the City meters collect is a deterrent to commerce.

Other factors:

– Median Household Income: $63,500 (Martinez well exceeds this with $83,112)
– Median Age: 36.2 (Martinez is much older at 44.3 years)
– Owner Occupied Homes: 62% (we are on par for this)

And even if the planners at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s decided to to build a 40,000 sq/ft. specialty grocery Downtown, there would be overwhelmed with roadblocks to progress.  The Planning Commission would need to decide if the store fit the plan and charm of “Historic downtown Martinez”. Nearby residents would need to not be “outraged” at the change of the tenor of the neighborhood, with the influx of shopping traffic pouring in from all around town.  And finally, the Unions will absolutely oppose a new competitor to the existing union groceries in Martinez.  Specialty groceries are known for their high standards of employee care and compensation, but unions will use lobbying to block city officials from approving a non-union store.

There is HOPE!

We do not need a full full-sized grocery to get the benefits of one.  There are steps that can lead up to a large chain being interested in an area.  We can embrace what we have now, pre-gentrification, and leverage it to improve property values and retail sustainability organically. Martinez is NOT Lafayette or Napa.  Our current landscape is conducive to merchants and shops that will draw on their own merits, grow, thrive, and in turn attract future larger merchants to the neighborhood.

– Specialty food stores and ethnic grocers.  Whole Foods has specialty EVERYTHING. But a specialty food store can stand on its own and attract its own business, without the investment and risk of a giant retail grocery.  A cheese shop, a Persian grocer, an Italian deli, a handmade candy store (hello Main Street Sweets!), a sports nutrition shop, an organic food store.

– Embrace our quirky, down-market, out of the way location.  A really niche store like a hemp candle emporium, or  service for custom printed 3D objects, could not succeed with Lafayette rents. But could find its own audience in person, and online, in an artsy, humble setting like Main Street.

– Enforce the codes and ordinances we have in place.  Clean up store fronts. Get rid of plywood frontages. There at least a dozen more codes passed to “clean up downtown” that are largely forgotten.

– More craft, less crap.  Local honey, local beers, local veggies, local roasted coffee, local leatherwork, local handcrafted local stuff.  Whole Foods cannot offer the local craft focus that individual merchants can on Main Street.

We cannot wait for Big Government or Big Corporations to sweep in and magically transform our downtown.  It is up to us to invest our dollars opening new businesses, supporting new businesses, and voting with our feet to keep them open.  Thriving small stores will attract new medium stores, and help grow the entire downtown revenue pool so it attracts fantasy retailers like Pinkberry, Sur Le Table, or AG Ferrari Italian market. It is as easy as planning your shopping around what you can get downtown first, then go to the supermarket or mall.

In five or ten years, when the downtown economy is ready for a major retailer, perhaps the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods of the world will be ready for us.  They are already looking at smaller stores with less overhead, designed for smaller downtown areas.  To fill in geographic gaps with an convenience centered option.  The expectations for revenue and draw are not as high for these smaller stores. Martinez could be a candidate.

I am hopeful for Downtown Martinez bouncing back and thriving. The entirety of Main Street can offer a supermarket’s worth of specialty items in one place, with even better service and focus than a chain store.  I will support these businesses. Who else will?


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