Driving north on Highway 99, just past the southernmost city limits of Corvallis, a relic of a once-promising plan still lingers.
Sandwiched between the Corvallis New Holland farm equipment supplier and the 7-Eleven—with sprinkles of houses in between—is a gravel lot that was pegged to be the epicenter of major development in South Corvallis.
The city’s South Corvallis Area Refinement Plan mapped out the Corvallis Auction Yard as the site for a potential grocery store to go along with commercial and residential development in the surrounding area.
That was in 1997.
The only thing that has been added to the location is graffiti strewn haphazardly across the barn’s walls.
In the 17 years since that plan was finalized, South Corvallis—or South Town, as it is more commonly known—has nearly doubled in size, growing from 5,700 residents in 1997 to 10,822 today.
Stores like Market of Choice, Walmart Neighborhood Market, and Natural Grocers have cropped up within the past five years, ensuring an overwhelming stronghold of the city’s grocers on the north side of town. The only major grocery stores south of Buchanan Avenue are the Safeway locations downtown and on Philomath Boulevard.
South Town remains vacant.
People Are Trying
“There’s definitely interest in a grocery store,” said Zach Baker, city councilman for Ward 3, which covers most of South Corvallis. “I’ve heard it around the streets talking to folks, talking to organizations. People just don’t know what the next step is in terms of getting a grocery store.”
The next steps are complicated.
It has not been for lack of effort that the Corvallis Auction Yard was left in its desolate state.
Ten years ago, Tom Gerding, owner of T. Gerding Construction Company, purchased the auction yard. The seven-acre auction yard could turn into a 15-acre development site with cooperation from adjacent property owners.
That was the idea when Gerding hired a grocer consultant to scout and analyze the area.
“The demographics were a long ways away from supporting a full-size grocery store,” he said.
More specifically, circumferential population, visual and mental barriers, traffic count, other nearby destinations, and leakage to other major stores were the main factors opposing a grocery store movement to South Town.
Gerding brought it to the table again five years later. Little had changed in South Corvallis’ development.
He talked with Ray’s Food Place about the auction yard, but talks fell through and Ray’s ended up closing 16 stores and its parent company filed for bankruptcy.
Ten years have passed, and Gerding is ready to sell the parcel to a developer.
“There are several directions this could go,” Gerding said. “Our primary interest is looking for someone to purchase it and do the development, not for us to develop it internally.”
He said there are some talks bubbling about the development, and that the consensus for those involved is that something needs to get done with that property. And quickly.
“Right now, there’s no viable interest generated from a major grocery outlet,” he said.
Gerding had been looking and hoping for a grocery store to be the anchor of a South Town development. Now, the idea of bringing in something else as the anchor—and hope a grocery store would follow—is a thought.
Why the North-South Lopsidedness
“Destination” is a word that is often brought up in these talks.
Market of Choice store manager Brett Wallace said he often wonders why there is no grocery store in South Town. He said there is a major contingent of the population down there that could become loyal customers.
Yet, a plethora of grocers exist on the north side of town, and are doing well.
Why is that? Why are there so many stores near each other?
“Generally, when businesses are located close together, it does tend to draw people in,” Wallace said.
If people want to shop Market of Choice’s ad, but also Safeway’s and Trader Joe’s, all three can be found close together, he said.
Everyone’s a winner.
When Walmart was looking at adding a Neighborhood Market location in Corvallis, the developers who were contracted looked at South Corvallis.
“When they were looking around, they said they looked at that area and it just doesn’t have the critical mass yet to support a grocery store,” said Tom Nelson, economic development manager for the City of Corvallis.
In South Town, if a grocery store were to pop up in the auction yard, it would be the only destination in the area.
“More needs to happen than just a grocery store deciding to locate there,” Nelson said. “There needs to be some other redevelopment in South Town. There need to be other reasons for people to go there other than buying groceries.
So, someone has to be the first person through the wall on this.
The development will, theoretically, follow.
Gerding was going to be that person, and he still could be.
Cleanup on Aisle 99
Nelson said there is more to the problem than just someone developing there. The population in South Corvallis of nearly 11,000 is close to supporting a store, and he said more new residential development in the area could be nearing.
Streetscaping, upkeep, and making the area generally look nicer are key for new development, he said. There have been talks of adding development in the area for nearly 20 years, and nothing has happened.<
“It doesn’t look that nice,” Nelson said. “I do think that if the City had that in their vision, wanting to do some streetscape there, it provides an incentive for a developer to want to develop because they could see that there’s some care being taken.”
It’s not just the City’s burden either, Nelson said; the businesses have to help in that area, too.
There Could Be Alternatives
Some would say there already is a grocery store in South Town.
One of the first things in sight after crossing the river and going underneath the Highway 34 bridge is a yellow-orange building.
First Alternative Co-op, a mainstay in South Town, is the closest thing to a grocery store in South Corvallis. General manager Cindee Lolik said the co-op is not only the closest thing, she said it is South Town’s grocery store.
“There’s a perception that we are not a full-service grocery store,” Lolik said.
Lolik is skeptical that growth will happen anytime soon. If the past 20 years are any indication, she is right.
“[South Town is] not growing that rapidly,” Lolik said. “The tipping point for a conventional grocery store isn’t here at this point.”
The perception of the co-op is that the prices are high, and the store is too small. In a very small sample, First Alternative’s milk and produce prices were competitive with its nearest competitor, Safeway, and its main competitor in the high-end market, Market of Choice. The price of eggs was slightly higher at the co-op, and the bread prices were quite a bit higher.
But First Alternative could find a compromise: expansion.
Lolik said they are just focusing on the facility they have in South Town for now. A 5- to 10-year plan is on the horizon and expansion will be discussed.
“It is very early in the process,” she said. “Right now, there really isn’t a cohesive plan. It’s just something that’s starting to gel.”
Lolik said they do not want the co-op to turn into a major 50,000-square-foot facility, but there is a real chance that growing larger to become closer to a conventional grocery store in South Town could happen.
Maintaining the quality of ingredients and products is a must; expansion would mean incorporating products into the store that they do not have room for in the current location.
Another alternative is something City Councilor Zach Baker mentioned: “a comprehensive food center.”
This could include any or all of: a grocery store, community kitchen, community garden, distribution center, and food bank.
“The idea being to basically make a one-stop shop related to food to move forward food access in our community,” Baker said. “It’s an idea that’s starting to potentially get legs.”
The Benton County Health Department was involved in a 2009 study about the idea of a comprehensive food center. The health department is continuing to talk with people about the project and its possibilities, Baker said.
Seeing the Future
A lot of maybes. Nothing definitive.
Nelson, a native of Willamette Landing in South Town, has reserved optimism about the seemingly never-ending saga.
“My crystal ball: I would say in five years we might see something, but it’s going to take a while,” he said.