"This is Death Valley. There's no water anywhere."
Evidently, that's about to change. At a ceremony Thursday at the deteriorated site of the city's last major grocery - which closed 11 years ago - Philabundance announced that it would open the nation's first nonprofit supermarket there in the spring.
If bringing the "Fare & Square" market to Chester didn't require an act of Congress, it did require the intervention of a congressman, Bob Brady (D., Pa.); state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware); generous corporate support, including $100,000 from Sunoco; individual contributions; and government grants.
"We're confident this will be a game-changer for the city of Chester," said William Clark, Philabundance's president and executive director, speaking from a long-abandoned loading bay in the 3100 block of West Ninth Street to a group of about 30 people, which included Bail.
Since Fare & Square is a nonprofit, the property won't generate real estate taxes, but Mayor John Linder said he hoped the venture would lure for-profit groceries.
"Everyone is very excited to see what will happen," said John Weidman, deputy director of the Philadelphia-based Food Trust, a national group that promotes the availability of fresh foods in inner cities.
While he has a rooting interest in the project, Weidman cautioned that Philabundance, the food-relief agency, would have to find its way without a road map. "It's a tough business," he said.
Clark acknowledged that the Fare & Square market would be an "adventurous undertaking."
Right now the building is a shell that looks like a forsaken airplane hangar. Philabundance, which expects to take title next month, promises that when the store opens, it will be well-lighted and sparkling clean.
At 13,000 square feet, it will be roughly one-third the size of a conventional supermarket.
That said, "it will look just like a grocery store," Clark added.
The store will have six cash registers. Its perimeter will bear similarities to Giants and Acmes, stocked with standard items such as produce and dairy products, with dry goods in the center.
"We won't have the health and beauty aids, the sodas and chips," Clark said. It won't have an in-store pharmacy, nor will it be selling the likes of charcoal grills or fishing rods.
It will require customers to become "members," but the prices will be lower than those of other supermarkets. "If you're on food stamps, we can provide additional assistance," Clark said.
Whatever challenges loom, competition isn't one of them, at least for now. Chester has been singularly unattractive to grocery companies, industry experts said.
"It was very tough to get grocery stores interested," Weidman said.
The city's reputation as a high-crime area aside, he said, Chester's demographic and economic realities have been a hard sell to the chains.
The city is situated between the lush farmlands of South Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania that are rich sources of fresh produce. But in a Philabundance survey, more than half of Chester residents said they lived too far from any place that sells groceries.
A cluster of census tracts on the city's west side meets the income and the federal criteria - low-income populations with limited access to food markets.
The city is left with a preponderance of unhealthier alternatives, said Linder, and that is contributing to obesity among people who struggle to pay for food.
He is hoping that Fare & Square will make a difference.
Said Linder, "We've been wanting a supermarket for a long, long time."
Contact Anthony R. Wood
at 610-313-8210 or email@example.com.