CINCINNATI -- When Dewey Hawthorne moved to Walnut Hills 27 years ago, the landscape of his urban neighborhood was very different. The former University of Cincinnati professor would go to work but had little interaction with the community when he returned home.
Over the past few years, new businesses have transformed Walnut Hills and refurbished its reputation. Grocery giant Kroger, which closes its store on East McMillan Street Wednesday, is at the crossroads of that change.
"Within five blocks of my home I have everything, so the Kroger leaving us is dramatic for me and my neighbors," Hawthorne said.
There were campaigns, meetings and multiple efforts from stakeholders to save the Walnut Hills Kroger dating back nearly a decade.
But it wasn't enough.
The location has been losing money, Kroger spokeswoman Patty Leesemann said, even after the company renovated the store's interior, changed products in an attempt to boost sales and lowered prices.
Over the past six years, Leesemann said the Walnut Hills Kroger lost $4.9 million -- $300,000 this year alone.
The design of the store -- with a large, blank wall facing one of the neighborhood's main streets -- probably didn't help, UC Community Design Center Director Frank Russell said.
"It eliminates the interest that a pedestrian might have in walking down a sidewalk in a neighborhood business district where, typically, we can look into lots of storefronts and window-shop," he said.
Russell said food retailers such as Kroger face a challenge because they need a fairly large footprint. To fix the store's design, he said, Kroger and other major retailers have to invest in developing new designs that might be more expensive to build.
"I think there is resistance at the bottom line," Russell said.
With Kroger's exit, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation is now taking that into consideration.
"We asked ourselves, how do you respond not just to the reality that we are losing a grocer but the emotional toll it's going to have on our community?" foundation chairwoman Christina Brown said.
Gary Dangel, the foundation's healthy outreach coordinator, is meeting with residents to find new sources of food. Ideas have included smaller stores, co-ops, grocery delivery services or another big-box store.
"If you don't have access within a 1-mile radius of where you are, you are considered a food desert," Dangel said.
Kroger's lease on the property doesn't expire until Jan. 31, 2018, meaning the building likely will sit empty. That worries many people more than the closure itself.
"You can't find one solution for that," Dangel said. "It's not a one-stop shop. We need to craft something that's unique to our neighborhood and the goal is to serve everyone."
For now, what becomes of the space is a mystery -- leaving people like Hawthorne and Dangle to brainstorm how it might help or hurt the neighborhood's momentum.
"I understand that corporations are not charities," Hawthorne said. "I just don't know how you can put a dollar value on the community center that Kroger has functioned as for 30 years."
Kroger is offering a bus transportation system for customers. Those who registered and used their Kroger Plus cards in the store before it closed are eligible for the service through Aug. 31.
According to Leesemann, this is how it works:
- Register for the program before the store closes.
- Shop new Corryville store, spend at least $20, present your Plus card at checkout.
- Customers will receive a message on the bottom of their receipt to present at the customer service desk for their roundtrip bus ticket.
- Offer limited to two shopping trips per household per week until Aug 31.
Kroger also is offering a free shuttle service for customers 50 and older from the Walnut Hills parking lot to the new Corryville store on Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. through March 31, 2018. Customers must show an ID each time they use the service. The company is partnering with Cincinnati Area Senior Services on the shuttle.