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Embattled food market project aims to rally support in Fruit Belt, receive financial backing

Embattled food market project aims to rally support in Fruit Belt, receive financial backing

The racist mass shooting at Tops Markets on Jefferson Avenue last year underscored the scarcity of fresh food options in East Buffalo.

Nearly one year since the tragedy, there’s agreement that more sources of healthy, sustainable and affordable food are needed.

But specific projects are struggling to move forward – particularly in the Fruit Belt, a low-income neighborhood that touches the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Organizers of one project, the proposed High Street Food Market, held a community meeting Saturday morning at the Rev. Dr. Bennett W. Smith Sr. Family Life Center. They shared updates and requested feedback for its plans for an open-air market, youth-driven grocery store and other amenities on four vacant lots on High Street, at the corner of Locust Street.

About 15 people attended, nearly all contributors to the project.

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Rev. Michael Chapman, pastor at St. John and Gethsemane Missionary Baptist churches, president/CEO of the associated St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp. and leader of the Buffalo’s Black Billion ministry, has pursued various plans for a market and also apartments on High Street for 15 years.

226-238 High Street

The four parcels on High Street between Mulberry and Locust streets in the Fruit Belt neighborhood would be the site of a proposed new development by St. John Baptist Church and its community development corporation.

But he’s faced many hurdles: pushback from neighborhood residents accusing him of attempted gentrification, frustration from preservationists who battled demolition attempts and a moratorium on purchasing city-owned properties in the Fruit Belt.

Undaunted, Chapman said he’s holding public meetings now to explore three options which cost from $1.2 million to $6 million, depending on the plan.

• A 4,000-square-foot project with a grocery market on the first floor, two apartments on the second floor and an open-air farmers market in an adjacent area, designed by Dean Architects.

• A 10,000-square-foot, two-story development with a grocery market, café and offices, designed in 2011 by Michigan-based Hannah & Associates.

• A 30,916-square-foot, four-story development with a grocery market, café, fitness center and office space, also by Hannah & Associates.

Substantial work has been done in the plans for the fresh food and agricultural aspects of the market, Chapman said. He emphasized partnerships with the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County and Grassroots Gardens. He’s submitted a proposal for a grant to support workforce development of Buffalo Public Schools students at the proposed grocery store. The pastor said many students in the district attend his churches, and he’d like to offer an opportunity for students with grades between 65 and 75 to learn skills to hold about 40 part-time jobs.

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The low-rise community north of Goodell Street and south of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus has undergone a top-to-bottom rehabilitation.

The St. John pastor was joined Saturday by church trustee Michael Norwood, consultant for Buffalo’s Black Billion, the redevelopment initiative with a lengthy list of housing projects. Among the projects – recent work with a Brooklyn developer for a $57 million renovation of McCarley Gardens, the affordable housing complex that accommodates 150 families on Michigan Avenue. 

The High Street Market project aims to drum up community and financial support at the same time a similar project in the same neighborhood faces an uncertain future. Norwood noted recent issues with the state’s $3 million grant to support to the African Heritage Food Co-Op, which intended to renovate a dilapidated building at 238 Carlton St. to create its own fresh-food market. However, the nonprofit status for the African Heritage Economic Initiative was revoked in August because it had not filed IRS forms for three straight years. Alexander Wright, the co-op’s founder and president, said in late March he had rectified a bookkeeping problem and appealed to the IRS.

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Norwood said he had no intention of supplanting the African Heritage Food Co-Op – two fresh-food options could be supported by a community in need, he explained. But he wanted Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration to know that Buffalo’s Black Billion and the Fruit Belt Community Development Corporation were undertaking a project to improve food security as well.

Chapman said Saturday morning that an earlier iteration of his market project, Sweet Pea Market, was developed in 2011 and nearly had sealed a contract with the City of Buffalo until a moratorium was declared for the sale of city-owned property in the Fruit Belt in 2017. That market was proposed for 204 High St., but Chapman in 2020 decided to move the project one block away after meeting backlash from preservationists for his aims to demolish the post-Civil War-era Meidenbauer House. The moratorium was fully lifted last June. 

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St. John Baptist Church and its St. John Fruit Belt Community Development Corp., led by Pastor Michael Chapman, are hoping to construct a two-story mixed-use building on High Street between Mulberry and Locust streets.

Chapman was not bothered by the lack of community attendance Saturday. He said 2,000 to 3,000 parishioners at his churches would provide plenty of feedback. He’s eager to move forward with the project.

“This is large enough that it could impact the whole East Buffalo,” said Chapman, who announced last month his campaign for the Ellicott District seat of the Buffalo Common Council. “It could be the nucleus.”

Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at [email protected], at (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.