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Supermarket project could transform Elizabeth neighborhood

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Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, from left, Councilman Bill Gallman and Jacobs Enterprises President George Jacobs at the groundbreaking.
Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage, from left, Councilman Bill Gallman and Jacobs Enterprises President George Jacobs at the groundbreaking. - ()

It's one thing for a neighborhood to be a food desert, but George Jacobs sees something perhaps more alarming in the area that sits east of Route 1 & 9 in Elizabeth.

Namely, it’s a section of the city where residents have long had to travel by car or bus to get to a grocery store, despite housing more than a third of the city’s population.

“Route 1 and 9 is basically like a river — it’s a barrier,” Jacobs said. “And folks on this side of the highway are almost on an island.

“It’s a food desert island.”

But a development team led by Jacobs’ firm, Jacobs Enterprises, is helping to meet that need with a 55,000-square-foot project that’s now underway in the Union County seat. Sitting at East Grand and Division streets, the project will be anchored by a 25,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Foodtown supermarket that is projected to open by fall 2016.

The $17 million project will transform the former site of an NJ Transit bus maintenance facility, thanks to a collection of private and public funding sources. City officials have long sought to a build a supermarket or at least redevelop the formerly contaminated site, but have not seen previous efforts move forward.

“The public incentives were instrumental,” said Jacobs, president of the Clifton-based firm. “They made the numbers work. … But for the variety of incentives we got, this project wasn’t happening.”

Chief among them is a nearly $4.8 million reimbursement grant under the state’s Economic Redevelopment and Growth program, or ERG, which was awarded by the Economic Development Authority in January. The project also is being funded by other loans and grants from the city and state, plus developer equity and a nearly $9 million loan from Valley National Bank.

It’s that funding mix that allowed the developer to offer an attractive rent to the supermarket operator, Jacobs said. The overall project is 85 percent leased, with commitments from other tenants, including Dollar General and a laundry operator.

But it’s the “neighborhood supermarket” that Jacobs says is truly impactful. Supermarket Consulting Group partner Robert Volosin, who Jacobs said “brought the supermarket deal to the table,” said this section of eastern Elizabeth has less than 0.09 square feet of supermarket selling space per person, a far cry from the national average of 5.47 square feet.

It’s one reason the city has pushed to redevelop the property, including taking the lead in remediation.

“The city and the EDA — and all the lending partners — have been extraordinary,” Jacobs said. “It’s been cooperation and participation in the process that we really see.”

The project is expected to generate 90 new full-time jobs upon completion and 71 construction jobs, according to the EDA. It was designed by Jarmel Kizel Architects and Engineers, while River Drive Construction is serving as general contractor.

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