Top Value inspires change but still struggles
Marvin Alexander sat in the deli at Top Value Foods, staring out into the store’s parking lot while voicing his hope that more cars will begin filling the empty stalls.
“I would like to have the parking lot full of cars,” he said. “That’s where we would like to be. But we aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet.”
Alexander was one of four men who joined together as owners and operators of Top Value, 801 University Ave., which opened for business March 26, 2003. And with a decade’s worth of input and optimism from a community that desperately needed a grocery store, it’s hard for the owners to think about giving up on their business venture, one that has inspired change in a struggling area.
“I see so many positives around, and yet we’re still not where we would like to be or where we need to be,” said Alexander. “And yet we know that there are many stakeholders in this, and the success of the grocery store means a lot to this part of the community.”
Opening a supermarket was a vision of leaders within the Des Moines Enterprise Community, an area that extends north from Interstate 235 to Hickman Road and extends west from the Des Moines River to Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, and one that prior to Top Value Foods lacked a full-service grocery store. Frank Owens, a neighborhood association representative to the Enterprise Community’s governing body, said transportation issues created an even greater need within the community. Many residents do not have automobiles, thus making “a pedestrian-friendly store pretty important.”
“There is a desire to bring commercial things back into the area, an area with 12,000 people that aren’t truly landlocked but they certainly don’t have the conveniences that you find in other places,” said Owens, who also serves as a community development field specialist for Iowa State University Downtown Des Moines.
Alexander’s business partners, Nick Nichols, owner of Noble Ford-Mercury Inc. in Indianola, Franklin Greene, owner of Quality Ford in West Des Moines, and Greg Steward, a grocery store operator from Kansas City, Mo., joined together in 2000, following the lead of then-Mayor Preston Daniels, who Alexander said recognized the need for a grocery store within the EC. Alexander said Top Value is the only full-service grocery store within a two-mile radius.
“I’ve lived there for 39 years, and during that period of time, I’ve watched the community change from one with small grocery stores on corners to one with no stores at all,” Owens said. “There are elderly people in the community, and for them to get to a grocery store can be difficult. If you’ve ever had to do without a grocery store nearby, it’s really an inconvenient thing.”
Alexander, formerly the vice president of administration at Equitable of Iowa Cos., received a buyout from the Des Moines-based insurer in 1999 when it was acquired by Dutch financial services giant ING Groep N.V., leaving him with disposable income that he could use to invest in the business venture. But there was some concern about the unknown.
“There are always probably some hesitations because it’s a new thing and it had taken so long for it to be put together,” he said. “They had people that were interested at different times, but something always sidetracked them so that the project would not go forward. But through the efforts and cooperation from the city of Des Moines, it gave us enough encouragement to proceed.”
Soon, the ownership group was meeting with architects, neighborhood association members and city officials and began to see the store take shape – but not without input from the stakeholders. In meetings with members of the community, they gathered comments on everything from the color of the brick on the exterior of the building to traffic patterns. An exit route to the north was eliminated from preliminary plans following some discussion.
“They said that would bring potentially too much traffic to the neighborhood and so they didn’t want that, as we had built into our initial plans,” Alexander said. “So we said ‘OK, we’ll eliminate that.’ There was a lot of input about what they wanted to see brought to the neighborhood.”
Additional funding for the $7 million supermarket was acquired through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Small Business Administration.
Despite a few loose ends, Top Value opened on schedule, with public figures such as Congressman Leonard Boswell and Sen. Tom Harkin in attendance, as well as city council members and HUD officials, all there to celebrate the completion of a long-awaited project.
“There was a lot of hoopla and fanfare,” said Alexander, who manages the store’s day-to-day operations. “It was just a great outpouring. The community was really pulling together.”
With the doors open, customers in the aisles and employees behind the cash registers, the battle was just beginning for Alexander, Green, Steward and Nichols. And the pressure was on, with so many in the community hinging future development on the success of the store.
Top Value employs 27 people, and has employed as many as 48. Alexander said one of the store’s goals was to have at least 35 percent of its workforce be residents of the Enterprise Community, and at times that figure has gone as high as 50 percent.
“Because of the nature of the community and because there are people with transportation concerns, it makes it difficult to have some jobs,” said Owens. “Having jobs created within the Enterprise Community is very important. As we look to the area there are not a lot of jobs for young people. My brother was a sack boy at a store on Sixth Avenue, and that allowed him to have employment and have a work ethic.”
Within months of opening the store, the owners began to feel the pressure from customers, hearing complaints that their prices were too high. Through a partnership with Des Moines Citizens for Community Improvement, a survey was sent in August 2003 to 2,500 homeowners in the surrounding neighborhoods. Approximately 10 percent of the surveys were returned – a number boosted by the promise of free chicken to all survey respondents. The overriding complaint came back to prices. They followed up on the survey with a community forum to discuss some of the issues that had been raised.
Alexander recalled a conversation with one woman at the meeting who said she quit shopping at Top Value because she thought the prices were too high. But he asked her to return to the store and see for herself that they had been able to lower prices.
“She and her sister came to the store after the meeting that night, and they have been regular shoppers ever since,” he said.
Last year’s customer survey also provided guidance in adding services at the store. Alexander and his partners have since added coupon matching, check cashing, utility-payment service, money orders and representatives of lenders who are able to answer questions for customers who are interested in becoming homeowners. They continue to keep their ears to the ground as they consider adding services that will be a draw for customers, such as dry cleaning.
Top Value has become a gathering point for community members, with car washes in the parking lot, neighborhood association meetings in the deli area and drawings by elementary students hanging near the entrance. Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards held a campaign rally there in January prior to the Iowa caucuses, speaking to a crowd while standing on top of a pile of boxes in the produce section, with national media and community members piled into the store.
“To a large extent, we have provided that type of meeting place for people to come and meet their neighbors,” Alexander said. “It’s a good environment.”
Though Top Value has been a boon in itself to the Enterprise Community, providing a neighborhood grocery store and employment opportunities, it has also encouraged further development in the area.
“If you drive through the neighborhood today, you will notice in the entire Enterprise Community there are houses that are being built, houses that are being refurbished,” Alexander said. “There are people who, in this case, tried to respond to a need that had been identified, which was a grocery store that provides the impetus and becomes the linchpin for future development.”
He pointed to the McDonald’s restaurant at Sixth and University avenues, which opened within months of Top Value’s debut, as well as plans by neighborhood groups to add more small businesses and storefronts along the Sixth Avenue corridor.
“People may not like this part, but it’s going to allow them to pay more property taxes because their property is going to appreciate because there is more pride taken because there is more work being done,” said Alexander. “There are all these positive things that are going to take place because, rather than having a non-productive area, it becomes viable and productive and contributes to the tax roll as opposed to draining it.”
Owen called development down Sixth Avenue “a slow progression,” aided by the fact that it remains a heavily traveled corridor.
“I see those developments come forth and that brings a lot of joy for me,” he said. “I’m hoping they will act like magnets to other development in the area, and I’m hoping others will want to invest, too.”