Flint Market Will Put Good Food, Ownership in Hands of Residents

A new food co-op will take the place of about 7 acres of abandoned property and buildings in Flint, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Atkinson)

As a pastor, Reginald “Reggie” Flynn is used to hearing about people’s problems and helping them through rough patches, but there was a moment a few years ago when he’d had enough.

He’d been attending neighborhood meetings where he lives on the north side of Flint, Michigan, an area known in the city for blight, crime and disinvestment. Several large chain grocery stores had closed throughout Flint, including a Kroger on Pierson Road, a main north side corridor, in July 2014. On top of money struggles, residents were losing good access to healthful food. They began telling Flynn he had to do something.

“I said, I’ve had enough. I’m not coming back to any more of these meetings,” Flynn recalls. “You guys are complaining too much about what you don’t have, and you can take your destiny in your own hands and we can do something collectively.”

Today, it’s hard for Flynn to see where his role as pastor ends and his role as a community developer and president of the North Flint Reinvestment Corporation begins. His wife jokes that he talks more about market shares for his most recent project — a food co-op — than he does about his sermons. Flynn’s threat to leave those neighborhood meetings led to talk with residents about starting the co-op, which is now on the verge of becoming a reality.

Starting a food co-op isn’t easy, especially in a place that larger chain stores have decided aren’t good for business, but the timing has been right so far.

The city of Flint created the Economic Recovery Task Force, which in turn formed the Grocery Stores Initiative, a board focused on replacing and maintaining food shopping options in the city.

They began by commissioning a market analysis for north Flint, and the researchers concluded that attracting a large chain store could lead to problems, like driving out other smaller grocers or leaving certain residents without access.

However, that study also concluded that the north side could support two small grocery stores, with sales of about $4 million annually. (According to the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce, a typical chain grocery store brings in about $19 million in sales in the region.) The North Flint Reinvestment Corporation is now one of two organizations working with the Grocery Stores Initiative.

A food co-op is owned by members who pay a fee and get a vote in how the company is managed. Flynn likes that community ownership aspect.

“There’s a lot of talk about the community owning this grocery store, and we’re really pushing that aspect of the business model,” Flynn says. “I think that is what is going to distinguish us.”

While the pastor is spearheading the effort, the creation of the food co-op is also the result of several community groups working in tandem. The site of the store is currently owned by the Genesee County Land Bank, which owns and works to maintain and revitalize abandoned properties. Flynn secured grant money for demolition of the abandoned structures (some are fire damaged) at the food co-op site. When those are removed, construction on the new market can begin. Predevelopment funding so far, which has gone to things like market research, has come from local philanthropic organizations like the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, Ruth Mott Foundation, and Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. The chamber of commerce has assisted the North Flint Reinvestment Corporation in applying for grants.

“The leveraging of partnerships is so critical. It’s so critical to have willing partners at the table,” Flynn says.

It’s also important to have people on the ground willing to do the work.

“Our responsibility is to help connect, facilitate … they have to live with it, they have to build it, it is theirs,” says George Wilkinson, group vice president of the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce and board member of the Grocery Stores Initiative. “We’re thankful for community advocates and pioneers like Pastor Flynn who have just a tremendous amount of passion, a tremendous amount of vision, and can put together the strategy.”

Wilkinson says he was also happy to see the city of Flint take the initiative in implementing the Economic Development Task Force, which led to the Grocery Stores Initiative. While people like Flynn who are on the ground making it happen, nothing can happen, he says, without local governments, the nonprofit sector and the philanthropic community also working together.

The Grocery Stores Initiative is helping one other local grocer start up on Flint’s north side and is also working with existing small grocers in the city who have “weathered the storm” but could use assistance, Wilkinson says.

The community involvement and Flynn’s enthusiasm might be what’s needed to make the project succeed, according to Mary Donnell, program manager for the Michigan Good Food Fund, which, in partnership with Capital Impact Partners, has provided early funding and continued counsel on the Flint food co-op.

Pastor Reginald “Reggie” Flynn (Photo by Scott Atkinson)

She says the opportunity for community engagement can be “very powerful” and serve as a reflection for community needs. “It’s community building,” she says. “What I think is true is you need a champion and you need the community support.”

So far the co-op has close to 500 members and has raised about $50,000.

Flynn acknowledges that food co-ops in many U.S. cities are known for expensive organic fruits and vegetables, but he says the north Flint market will focus on traditional grocery items, with about 30 percent of the product being organic. That mix follows the market study results, which reinforced what Flynn already knew: North Flint residents aren’t necessarily looking for organic produce. They just need to go grocery shopping.

“It will be the standard [food co-op business] model,” Flynn says. “But the food options will be different.”

The co-op will also be a job creator. Flynn expects the market to create about 55 new jobs, most of them full-time. He is working with a local employment agency to hire local residents in need of work.

The market is one part of a larger plan that Flynn has for the Pierson Road corridor. Next door to the co-op, work has already begun on an apartment complex, and an expansion of the Eagle’s Nest Early Learning Center. The school, which serves 200 children, was one of Flynn’s earliest projects with North Flint Reinvestment Corporation. There are also plans for a youth business academy and aquaponics space.

Those community meetings Flynn attends have grown over the past year and a half. Now, he says, you’ll run into close to 200 people.

“That’s huge. I mean, I’ve been doing community engagement meetings for years, and you’d be good to have five people come to a neighborhood meeting,” he says.

That involvement might be just what’s required to make the food co-op succeed — and bring more attention to Flint’s north side. Much of the talk surrounding revitalization in the city is centered on downtown, an area known for being more affluent and more white.

Flynn says he isn’t against downtown development, but he also wants to see a paradigm shift in where reinvestment dollars are spent, and the food co-op is a good start.

“It transcends providing food,” he says.

This article is one in a series on resident-led revitalization efforts in Flint, Michigan. The series is being reported with underwriting from the Center for Community Progress, through a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Click here for more.