Study: Forest Grove a poor fit for most specialty grocers
A consultant presented the Forest Grove City Council Monday, Feb. 12, with a somewhat dispiriting conclusion for city officials and residents eager to see a new grocery store: The prospects, at least for now, don't look good.
What councilors heard Monday was that a grocery store geared toward Latino residents might be feasible, but an upscale specialty grocer likely wouldn't consider Forest Grove to be a compelling market. The area simply doesn't have enough college-educated residents and high-income households, said consultant Jerry Johnson, managing principal at Johnson Economics.
"One of the things we talk about with specialty grocers, they have different parameters — not just demand for grocery goods, but they look at a couple metrics they think are predictive of their ability to do well or perform well in the market," Johnson said, explaining, "They're looking for a higher degree of high-income, college-educated population, because that's closer to their target market that they feel will pay for their goods."
He added, "If you take a look at how you guys stack up comparatively in the region, it isn't really high, but it is improving."
Consultant: 'We don't see an immediate opportunity'
The demographics are already more favorable for an ethnic supermarket due to a robust Latino population in Forest Grove and neighboring Cornelius, according to the presentation. Grande Foods in Cornelius filled the market niche for a Latino grocery store, but it has been closed since late 2010. The building it occupied, formerly Hank's Thriftway, has remained empty since then — one of a number of derelict commercial properties along the Highway 8 corridor in Cornelius.
"We didn't see an immediate opportunity," Johnson said of bringing a second supermarket to the Forest Grove and Cornelius area. "An immediate opportunity might be something like an ethnic grocer … but they're difficult to forecast."
The good news for local grocery advocates is that "not now" doesn't necessarily mean "never."
With the population of the Forest Grove area growing and its demographics continuing on their trend toward higher income and educational attainment levels, Johnson Economics projects that there may be enough demand for a supermarket within the next five to 10 years. That store could perhaps even be a smaller-format specialty grocer — maybe something more like Portland-based Green Zebra or Eugene-based Market of Choice than New Seasons Market or Trader Joe's, which Johnson said are in very high demand right now. Northwestern Forest Grove might make for an ideal location for that new store, Johnson added.
"We see potential for maybe a traditional grocer, maybe a full-service specialty or limited-service specialty grocer probably being the best opportunities if you're talking about the five- to 10-year horizon," Johnson said.City Councilor Tim Rippe said he has heard strong public sentiment for a second supermarket in Forest Grove. He asked Johnson how the city can "bridge that gap" between citizens who want another grocery store and retail chains that don't view the area as a good prospect.
"The message is, 'We want something now. Not 10 years from now.' That's just not going to cut it," Rippe said.
Public opinion surveys and other means of measuring that popular interest can be a good way to tell a "story," Johnson said. That's the term he used for an argument not rooted in hard economic data that tries to sway a business into looking at a location it might not otherwise consider.
"I think those polling things are helpful if you can show that people really want to demonstrate they're looking for it," Johnson said. "You could do cheaper ways. … Focus groups aren't scientifically rigorous, because they're not statistically useful, and you could do internet surveys, which are also not statistically useful — but they can also be powerful if you get a really huge demand."
Commuters do some of their shopping elsewhere
Forest Grove officials have been trying for years to recruit a new supermarket to town.
Earlier this decade, the city discussed with New Seasons Market the possibility of the local organic grocery chain opening a retail location in Forest Grove. At the time, New Seasons produced a survey that showed Forest Grove's demographics fell just short of making the area attractive to the company, according to Jeff King, Forest Grove's economic development manager.
"There's not a lot of grocery out here," Johnson noted, showing the council a map of the stores in the greater Forest Grove area. "If you take a look at western Washington County, you really just have nothing but the Safeway, the Walmart, the Fred Meyer, and up in Banks, you've got the Thriftway. And most of the grocery strength is actually in Hillsboro."
That count is actually pretty much in line with other communities noted in Johnson's presentation, though. While McMinnville, the population of which is just slightly under Forest Grove and Cornelius combined, boasts more than twice their three grocery stores, it is more geographically isolated and self-contained."One of the issues we have in Forest Grove is that a very large percentage of your population commutes into the broader Portland metropolitan area for employment," Johnson said. "We tend to see linked trips, so when people go from their employment, they get the text to pick up groceries on the way home and they link those trips, and so they get access to other grocers that are outside of the community on a regular basis."
But Johnson agreed with Rippe when the city councilor responded from the dais: "It's only because they have to."
"Linking to work is a nice idea, but it's nice to have something close as well," Johnson said.
Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax thanked Johnson for his presentation and said he hopes the city continues working with his consulting firm on the grocery store issue.
"This is a good conversation," Truax said. "We have a lot of work that we have to do."
City Councilor Elena Uhing added, "We're certainly closer today than we were when we first started."By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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