Years after local residents contributed thousands to build a food store in Robbins, the store appears to be no closer to reality. The site of the proposed “Save More Foods” remains the hulking remnant of Robbins’ last working grocery store, and it has been shuttered for decades.
Save More Foods was the brainchild of longtime Robbins resident Darrell Mitchell. The multi-million dollar project was to be the anchor of a commercial development which, it was hoped, would provide a badly needed shot in the arm for one of Chicagoland’s most depressed communities.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says resident Corean Peoples, who invested $500 in the project. “We haven’t heard anything. Just a bunch of talk.”
Mitchell created an entity called DM Group Associates to build the store in 2004. And at first the investors did start pouring in, local residents hoping to eliminate Robbins’ status as a suburban “food desert”. Welton Jones contributed $5,000, but now concedes he will probably never see that money again.
“Even if it happened, it’s too late for a supermarket here, because what’s going to happen?” he asked. “Your residential area is diminishing. The people itself, I don’t figure there’s enough people to support it, even if it happened.”
Mitchell says he understands the investors’ concerns. But he insists the project is still very much alive.
“My bringing this supermarket development, it solves economic need that’s been missing for over 45 or 50 years,” he said. “We’re talking about having a tax base. We’re talking about keeping the dollars within the community.”
At first, Mitchell scored a big victory, a Neighborhood Stabilization Grant, awarded by then-Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, for $615,000. But documents obtained by NBC5 Investigates indicate that almost as quickly as the money was awarded, Cook County took it back.
“There is a window for you to proceed directly on the project, but it is only until June 15, 2010,” wrote Melissa Williams, in the County’s Bureau of Community Development. “We will need to see evidence that you have the ability to secure financing on the project by that date.”
When the date came, Mitchell wrote that he had been confronted with a personal emergency which delayed his response.
A month later, Williams wrote again, to inform Mitchell the money was no longer available.
“Since I did not hear or receive anything from you during that time frame, and you did not enter into the required NSP agreement with the County, your funds were reallocated as of June 16, 2010,” she said. “I sincerely hope this information is helpful to you.”
Mitchell wrote a series of emails insisting that he was not in default, and asking that officials reconsider. But that was to no avail. In fact, after Toni Preckwinkle took over as Board President, her office informed Mitchell he never should have been considered for the funds in the first place.
“It should be noted that a grocery store isn’t an eligible activity under the County NSP program,” wrote Joselynne Gardner, with the Bureau of Economic Development, “since our projects created affordable housing in financially distressed neighborhoods.”
Still, Mitchell continued to tout the Cook County grant in his fundraising pitches, and in fact, it is still referenced on his website.
“Well, we didn’t technically find out we weren’t going to get it until the middle or end of 2013,” he said. “I mean we were still going back and forth with Cook County.”
Indeed, during an interview this month in Robbins where he serves as Planning Commissioner, Mitchell had propped up blowups of his funding letter, and a photo of the County award ceremony from 2010. He told NBC5 that was merely to illustrate that the project had been seen as having value.
“I understand what a supermarket type project could do,” he said. “And I’m not going to stop until it gets done.”
In the interview, Mitchell indicated he felt he now had 75% of the necessary financing in place. But that “capital stack” was heavily dependent on major investors who might want to take advantage of grants which offer tax incentives for investing in impoverished communities.
He also said he was counting on nearly $200,000 in grants from NICOR and ComEd.
“We are not aware of his specific project,” a NICOR spokesman told NBC5. And a spokesperson at ComEd said that while Mitchell had submitted information for the grant, “We indicated we needed additional info which we haven’t gotten.”
Mitchell concedes the citizens’ contributions are now gone, part of the $200,000 he says has been spent so far trying to bring his dream to reality.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to keep fighting for this community and I’m going to get it done,” he said.
Asked to name the biggest thing he still needs, Mitchell didn’t hesitate.
“I need cash.”