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Shawn Vestal: Scott Kusel’s grocery store crusade all of a sudden doesn’t look far-fetched

Scott Kusel, a general contractor who lives in  East Central Spokane, stands next to the former SYSA Bingo Hall on East Sprague Avenue, which is now empty, on Tuesday. Kusel has been contacting grocery retailers around the region to see if he can get one to locate a store in the East Central neighborhood, perhaps in the empty bingo building that  started  as a grocery store at 2230 E. Sprague. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Scott Kusel, a general contractor who lives in East Central Spokane, stands next to the former SYSA Bingo Hall on East Sprague Avenue, which is now empty, on Tuesday. Kusel has been contacting grocery retailers around the region to see if he can get one to locate a store in the East Central neighborhood, perhaps in the empty bingo building that started as a grocery store at 2230 E. Sprague. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Scott Kusel gives himself poor odds of success in his latest venture: luring a grocery store to the food desert of East Central.

“If I were to lay odds, I might say we have a 1-in-100 chance,” Kusel said Tuesday. “Those are long odds. But people have done things against longer odds than that.”

Kusel, a house-flipper and neighborhood activist who has lived in East Central since 1991, wants to persuade a full-service local grocer to come to his neighborhood, which has some of the city’s highest poverty rates. He’s doing this as the city of Spokane is training its economic development resources on the East Sprague business corridor, preparing to devote the kinds of infrastructure spending and other investments that have paid off in the South Perry neighborhood.

To Kusel, now would be the perfect time for an enterprising grocer to get in the game. In a letter he’s sending to corporations and other organizations, he’s arguing that East Sprague “is at the cusp of a renaissance that would be larger in scale than the rise of the Garland and Perry districts combined!”

Kusel has contacted around 20 corporations and organizations in the grocery industry, and says he’s getting ready to start making phone calls. He’s trying to enlist the support of his councilman, Mike Fagan. He even has a building in mind – the former SYSA Bingo Hall at 2230 E. Sprague. So far, he’s received just one response: a noncommittal letter from Rosauers CEO Jeff Philipps.

It’s a big ask, and Kusel knows it. Grocers run on famously slim profit margins, and the economics favor big stores and chains. But Kusel believes it’s possible, and he plans to keep pushing, because he sees a grocery store – one that’s large enough to fill a pantry with the essentials and close enough for people to walk to – as one of the key building blocks of a neighborhood, and he wants to make his neighborhood better.

“There are these places that were always community centers, and grocery stores were one of them,” he said.

In addition to building community, local grocers – and especially the availability of fresh foods as opposed to fast food – also help support the health of people in a neighborhood. In 2012, the Spokane Regional Health District studied neighborhood health citywide and found startling disparities between wealthier neighborhoods and poorer ones in terms of health outcomes. The bottom line: People in richer neighborhoods lived years longer, on average, than residents of poor neighborhoods. The life expectancy in East Central was 73 years; in Rockwood it was 83 years.

There are many reasons for this, of course, and the social issues surrounding poverty are not so simple as to be solved by a grocery store. But the absence of such a store speaks volumes about the problems and perceptions of a neighborhood, and for one with high levels of poverty and reliance on government food assistance, the food landscape is an obstacle to good health: Fast food is everywhere, close and cheap; convenience stores conveniently offer beer, pop and potato chips; but for fresh produce and staple healthy foods, people have to go to other neighborhoods. Richer ones.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has begun identifying “food deserts” nationwide as census tracts where a significant number of low-income residents are a significant distance from a grocery store. A portion of East Central falls under this federal definition as a place where a high number of residents live more than a half-mile from a grocery store. About 10 percent of the U.S. census tracts are considered food deserts, affecting 13.5 million people.

This distinction is particularly acute now with the news that a new grocery store is coming to Kendall Yards, the development on the edge of West Central. Kendall Yards is enjoyable and impressive in many ways, but it establishes a sharp contrast with the surrounding neighborhood and raises questions about gentrification that Spokane has, frankly, not been confronted with very much. West Central has been a food desert for years. Many people are excited at the prospect of a grocery store in the neighborhood, but others might wonder if the kind of store that will fit naturally in Kendall Yards – one with wine clubs and sushi bars – will serve what’s missing in the neighborhood at large.

For his part, Kusel is taking the news as a good sign for his own crusade.

“Kendall Yards is new and improving and there’s no doubt that it’s going to be slightly more affluent,” he said. “But look at what Kendall Yards is built in. Kendall Yards is built in West Central.”

If a grocery store can work there, “we can do that here,” he said.

Kusel has lived in Spokane since 1988, and in East Central for 25 years. He buys, refurbishes and resells homes in the neighborhood, something he started when a neighboring home was gutted by fire and he saw the chance to improve the neighborhood by fixing it up and reselling it. He has been involved in other local issues – including a petition drive in opposition to recent City Council raises that fell short – and considers his grocery store push a kind of “low-level activism.”

Though East Central has some food stores, including Sonnenberg’s, it lacks the full-service grocery that Kusel has in mind: “What I want as a consumer is to be able to fill my pantry,” he said.

He’s a long way from that goal, and as he’s well aware, it’s a long shot. It will require a company or business owner taking a substantial financial risk. But rather than accepting that it’s impossible, he wants to put the idea out there, get people talking and thinking about it, and start the conversation that might make the long shot pay off.

“That’s where all the great stuff happens,” he said. “From a conversation.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.