West Ocala supermarket plans revived

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Posted May 27, 2021 | By Max Russell, Correspondent

The end could be in sight for the on-again, off-again struggle to bring a full-service supermarket to an area in west Ocala often referred to as a food desert thanks to the lack of affordable, fresh and healthy groceries.

Fred Washington, an Ocala entrepreneur and community leader, recently announced a deal with a local ownership group to bring a Bravo Supermarket to the 2400 Block of West Silver Springs Boulevard.

The location is the same site where Washington and others have tried to build a multi-use retail center with the working title Paradise Park. Until now, no other supermarket has entered into a signed lease agreement, Washington said.

None of the nationally branded supermarkets in Ocala have a presence in the area planned for the center, which lies north of State Road 200 and roughly between Interstate 75 and US Highway 441.

Washington, who has championed a supermarket in the area for years, said the supermarket would occupy a 15,000 square-foot store in the shopping center. Bravo Supermarkets are individually owned and operated similarly to a franchise. Known as a grocery voluntary, the owners collectively share marketing resources but have more control over their own stores.

Bravo, which has more than 70 locations along the East Coast from New York to Florida, had a store in Ocala as recently as 2019. That store, located at 1929 SW SR 200, became Key Foods.

In addition to the grocery store, the Paradise Park center also will include a locally owned pharmacy and physician-directed basic health services, Washington said.

He noted that access to such services remains a challenge for many of the area’s residents, especially seniors.

Washington’s commitment to addressing the area’s food access issues began more than a decade ago when he served as youth minister at New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church.

“The kids were more interested in the pizza I brought in than my lessons, which wouldn’t ordinarily be a surprise,” he said. “What did surprise me was how voraciously they were eating.”

After learning that the only nutritious meal many of the children had each day was lunch provided at school, he said, “Jesus gave me a ministry—to put a grocery store in West Ocala.”

While earlier plans to locate a supermarket in the area, some dating back to 2013, have fallen short, Washington said this is the first time a lease agreement with a major grocery store chain has been finalized. That cleared the way for moving forward rapidly.

Working in partnership with Steve Allen, owner of Allen Construction, Washington anticipates completing the necessary agreements with lenders and Ocala soon. Groundbreaking could happen as early as late summer, with an opening date anticipated for mid-2022.

A city-commissioned feasibility study, which considered factors such as accessibility, consumer spending and other demographics, suggested that the chosen spot is the prime location for such an undertaking.

Washington also suggested that Bravo’s business model is ideally “situated for a food desert” because it seeks to draw customers from a broad socio-economic and cultural spectrum.

“Wherever you’re from in the world, if they don’t have the kind of food you want to buy, they’ll get it on the shelves,” he said.

While having access to fresh and nutritious food is a significant part of better health, Washington said he’s working with the local health department, University of Florida extension services and other health-related organizations on how to create a more comprehensive approach to solving the problems.

He hopes the additional 72,000 square feet planned for the shopping center will attract a range of retail businesses and services.

Counting the supermarket staff, the center hopes to create close to 60 new full-time jobs, Washington said.

“Some people have referred to us as ‘test dummies’ for taking this on. Actually, we’re just people of faith on a mission,” he said.

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