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A boost for grocers in Columbia's food-insecure neighborhoods has echoes of Greenville

A new incentive program for grocers in Columbia aims to bring residents of food-insecure and underserved communities closer to markets. The question is, will any grocers take the city up on the deal?
Scott Morgan
South Carolina Public Radio
A new incentive program for grocers in Columbia aims to bring residents of food-insecure and underserved communities closer to markets. The question is, will any grocers take the city up on the deal?

How do you solve a problem like food access?

Over the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve learned that the most obvious answer to that question – put grocery stores in communities that don’t have them – is far too simplistic a solution to a complex issue.

One of the reasons grocery stores fail in (typically poor) communities where access to healthy food is low, is that new stores trying to establish community roots often can’t hang on long enough to establish them.

Enter the Grocery Store Incentive Program, the City of Columbia’s newly implemented attempt to help markets in certain neighborhoods where food insecurity is high hang on.

For the record, those designated areas are located on or within 200 feet of: Main Street, North Main Street, Two Notch Road, Farrow Road, Elmwood Avenue, Fairfield Road, W. Beltline Boulevard, Colonial Drive, River Drive, Sunset Drive, Monticello Road, Covenant Road, Atlas Road, Bluff Road, and the Bull Street District (bounded by Harden, Colonial, Bull, and Calhoun Streets), according to the city.

The program – modeled after the one launched by the City of Greenville at the end of 2021 – rebates all business licensing for new markets and 75 percent of all business licensing fees for existing markets in the designated business districts above for up to five years.

Columbia City Councilwoman Tina Herbert says no money comes out of city coffers, so there’s “no risk to us.”

But risk to the city isn’t the question mark – that would be whether any grocers take Columbia up on its offer. This is where Greenville can be an example.

Greenville City Councilwoman Dorothy Dowe says that since the launch of that city’s incentive program for grocery stores, no store has committed to coming to town. Greenville is planning to begin a review of the incentive programs that include grocery stores, artists, and manufacturing businesses in January. Dowe says such periodic reviews are crucial to seeing how things are (and are not) working, as the reviews keep such initiatives live and front-of-mind.

A spokesperson for the City of Columbia says annual business license fees in the city breakdown as follows:

  • Smaller stores: $150 and up
  • Medium-size stores: $250 and up
  • Larger chain stores: $9,000-20,000

Both Herbert and Dowe say they are aware that waiving licensing fees is only a small piece of the expenses supermarkets have to pay, when other expenses like taxes, salaries, advertising, and product purchases take so much out of them.

“One thing about grocery stores,” Herbert says, “the margins are really slim. I can't say it enough -- the margins are really, really slim.”

She and Dowe agree that anything that helps take some of the financial pressure off supermarkets is a good thing.

“This is a really small slice of the pie of what they have to pay in to operate as a business,” Dowe says. “But every little bit counts, particularly when they're starting up as a new business.”

This story was updated on Dec. 20, 2023, to show the range of annual business license fees in Columbia.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.