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To Market, if You Can Get There

Closing of Troy Plaza Price Chopper sparks concerns that company is abandoning cities in favor of suburban superstores

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the Price Chopper Supermarket on Hoosick Street in Brunswick was bustling. Shoppers crowded the aisles as they cruised for fresh produce, packaged goods and the like, and waited in often-long lines at the deli and the fresh fish and meat counters. Like many of its counterparts in the region’s other suburbs, this store, which sits alongside busy Route 7 just outside the city limits of Troy, features most of the amenities associated with contemporary supermarket shopping: full-service meat, fish and deli departments; an in-store bakery including nearly two dozen varieties of bagels; an organic-foods section; a floral shop; a pharmacy; and so on. Also like most other Price Chopper supermarkets, it is open 24 hours a day.

Two miles west in aging Troy Plaza, in an urban, mixed-income neighborhood that is home to many minorities, students and elderly, is a very different sort of Price Chopper. To the right of the front doors is a large open section that looks roughly as large as the produce section of a suburban supercenter, only here, the produce is crowded into a small corner. Much of the floor space is empty, and the rest is taken up by four large bins of discount items that look decidedly un-picked-through. Much of the shelf space in the store is empty or sparsely stocked. There is no deli, no bakery, no fresh fish or meat counter. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, there were two registers open, which was more than enough to handle the 10 or so customers in the store at the time. And unlike most other Price Choppers, the Troy Plaza store shuts its doors at 6 PM every day.

If it looks like it’s getting ready to shut its doors for good, it is: Golub Corporation, the supermarket chain’s parent company, has announced that this Saturday will be the Troy Plaza store’s last day. And that news has some neighborhood residents and other concerned citizens up in arms.

“I don’t see how Price Chopper can pull out of downtown,” said Amy Halloran, who lives two blocks from the Troy Plaza store and used to be a frequent shopper there. “[When] I grew up, Price Chopper was our grocery store. And it felt like it was a real community market. And I feel really betrayed as a homeowner in an urban environment that a community market can’t stay in the community.”

But some observers believe Price Chopper’s corporate strategy is to abandon urban markets and concentrate on the suburban supercenters, citing the closing a few years back of the Rensselaer store next to the Amtrak station, and the more recent shuttering of the Watt Street store in Schenectady. That market’s last day was March 16; the very next day, Price Chopper celebrated the opening of a new supercenter in suburban Niskayuna.

And some feel that the company never intended to keep the Troy Plaza store going after it was damaged by a fire in fall of 2000. Eventually, a $500,000 renovation was done and the store reopened in June 2001, but not before the local chapter of NAACP called a public meeting to address rumors that the store wasn’t going to reopen, despite a promise that had been made by company chairman Neil Golub. At that meeting, Price Chopper representatives assured community members that the store would reopen.

“My gut feeling is that they were going to close it from the beginning, after the fire,” said Halloran.

Such suspicions were nurtured by the nature of the supermarket that did reopen. The Troy Plaza store conspicuously lacks the amenities of its suburban counterparts, and a 6 PM closing time is unheard of for supermarkets in this region—not to mention inconvenient for the many 9-to-5ers and RPI students who live nearby. “Nearly a third of its floor space was occupied by sale bins featuring light bulbs, plastic sandals, bottles of cheap salad dressing (no charge for the dust) and remaindered pharmaceutical items,” complained Jon Flanders, who lives near the store on 10th street. “The rest of the inventory was minimal, really little better stocked that your average convenience store.

“It was basically a convenient store without convenient store hours,” he added, noting the early closing time. “I believe they set it up to fail.”

“Despite having spent about $500,000 to totally refurbish the store, it never regained the business it had done before the fire,” countered Maureen Murphy, consumer services manager for Price Chopper Corporation. “It hasn’t met minimum sales expectations, and doesn’t show any sign that it will. . . . We have to make business decisions that are in the interest of continued success and growth for Price Chopper.”

“We’re certainly not abandoning the city of Troy,” she added, citing a new facility at Hudson Valley Plaza, out near Hudson Valley Community College.

Murphy also suggested that while the Troy Plaza store was closed for renovations, neighborhood residents discovered the Brunswick store two miles up the road, and now prefer to do their shopping there. “Once they saw what the new store had to offer in a larger, newer facility,” she said, “I think they remained there.”

Ironically, nearly a dozen Price Chopper customers interviewed for this story agreed with Murphy on that point—but stressed that that very customer drain is a large part of the problem. The neighborhoods surrounding Troy Plaza—not unlike the Center Square and Hudson Park neighborhoods near another urban Price Chopper, on Madison Avenue in Albany—are home to a very diverse population that spans poor to affluent. The suburban supercenters actually compete for the more affluent of these customers, who generally have the option to drive, and will travel a longer distance to do their shopping if they perceive a significant difference in store quality. As more people abandoned the Troy Plaza and its limited hours and services, they left behind the poor, the carless and the elderly—who apparently are not generating enough business to keep the store afloat.

“I felt really bad when I heard they’re closing,” said Gertrude Beaudoin, 80. “It’s bad for people like me who live alone and don’t drive a car.”

As it is, Beaudoin takes a bus to the Troy Plaza Price Chopper, and said she would have to transfer to a different bus to shop in Brunswick, which she said is too hard for her. But, she added, “It’s a beautiful store—I wish they could open one like that here.”

On the other hand, reported Halloran, “I have a lot of elderly neighbors who walk to the [Troy Plaza] store, and they didn’t like the bigger [Brunswick] store, because they got tired halfway down an aisle.”

Murphy stressed that a CDTA bus line serves the Brunswick store, and pointed out that during the renovation at Troy Plaza, Price Chopper offered free bus service out to Brunswick—and that it was used by fewer than 12 people a week. “Transportation,” she said, “doesn’t appear to be as monumental an issue as it’s being made out to be.”

Troy Deputy Mayor Jim Conroy, who returned a call placed to Mayor Mark Pattison, expressed disappointment that the Troy Plaza market was not successful after the renovation, but lauded the company for making the effort. Conroy acknowledged the value of having more services within city neighborhoods, and said the city is actively seeking a replacement market for the site. One hitch, he pointed out, is that Price Chopper still has one year left on its Troy Plaza lease—and, ironically, might be reluctant to free up the space for a competitor.

A coalition of neighborhood residents and community activists will rally to oppose the supermarket closing today (Thursday) from 4:30 to 6:15 PM at Troy Plaza. The event is being organized by Rosa House Peace Community.

“I don’t mean anything to them [Price Chopper executives],” concluded Gertrude Beaudoin. “They should consider the older people—they’ve got to eat, too.”

—Stephen Leon

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