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The day-glo signs on the windows of the vacant store at Oakton Street and Asbury Avenue are slipping downward and the parking lot is bare, but a new partnership says it plans to open a food store there before the year is out.

Nick Merikas, who with his brothers originally planned to open a Farmer’s Best grocery store there, has instead joined with two new partners, Jim Stavis and Dean Theo, whose proposal for a food store is much larger and more expansive than the Farmer’s Best. The name of the new store would be Fresh Food Marketplace (FFM). Mr. Theo and Mr. Stavis said they plan to expand the interior space from 14,600 square feet to about 22,000 square feet and are hoping to acquire additional space for parking.

Working on an accelerated timetable, the partners are seeking $1 million from the City in shared sales-tax revenues over a nine-year period. The request, approved unanimously by the City’s Economic Development Committee on Jan. 28, may be on the City Council’s agenda on Feb. 9.

The Redevelopment Agreement

CVS, the drugstore chain, still owns the property, and the FFM group says it has a 12-year lease on the property. Robert Rychlicki of Kane McKenna, a consultant for the City on many redevelopment projects, said the FFM group plans to obtain financing through a non-recourse loan and that receiving the $1 million from the City was an absolute condition for their obtaining the financing.

Mr. Rychlicki recommended that the sales-tax-revenue-sharing plan be spread over nine years, with the City receiving 25 percent of the sales-tax revenues and the FFM group receiving 75 percent. He said that, once FFM is up and running, the City could anticipate receiving $30,000-$40,000 per year as its share of sales-tax revenues.

It was not clear whether the Kane McKenna analysis discussed how much of that sales-tax revenue would be new to Evanston and how much would be the result of customers who already shop in Evanston simply switching grocery stores.

By presstime, the RoundTable was not able to clarify this issue.

Because the FFM group seeks financing through a non-recourse loan, the EDC members requested that the redevelopment agreement be contingent upon either Mr. Rychlicki’s or a City official’s reviewing the loan documentation and information. Another term in the redevelopment agreement is that negotiations would be reopened should the FFM group obtain refinancing or be able to purchase the property. A final term is that the group must obtain financing by March 1.

Aldermen Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, (EDC member) and Anjana Hansen, 9th Ward, (who attended the meeting) both said they thought the City would benefit from having an ongoing business rather than a vacant building on the property.

“What is the negative?” Ald. Hansen asked. “This store has been vacant for three years. Nothing has been generated for three years. What’s being generated [now] is a lot of neighborhood curiosity and interest,” she added. Ald. Rainey said, “While [the agreement is] risky, it’s all money they generate [through sales].”

The Proposed Grocery Store

Fresh Food Marketplace, said Mr. Theo, will be modeled after Central Markets operated by H.E.B in several Texas locations. He said the concept is “forced-flow” – that is, a layout that requires customers to visit every department rather than shop up and down straight aisles.

“It’s not a full grocery store – we’ll just take the fresh elements of a grocery store, the market elements, and have them upscale-looking.” The store will be “pleasant to the eye, family-friendly and service-oriented. Our best customer is the educated consumer,” he added. Both he and Mr. Stavis said they felt their store would be in competition with a Whole Foods – because of the fresh produce – rather than a Trader Joe’s, which they said sells mostly packaged goods. Because they will purchase their produce from smaller, more local growers, they said, they can keep their prices competitive.

Much of the interior work has already been completed, the two said, so they hope to be able to get to work shortly after the financing is in place and open as early as August.

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...