Richmond, Virginia’s Church Hill North neighborhood has one of the highest concentrations of poverty on the East Coast. Community advocates had long been working to address the issue, developing a master plan that called for both housing and commercial development in the neighborhood. They then found a much-needed champion in Richmond philanthropist Steve Markel. “We spent the better part of a year meeting with nonprofits that serve the community, and with the Richmond Public Housing Authority,” Markel explains.
With that, community advocates and Markel began work implementing a vision to bring transformational change to the area. The result: the $30.7 million Church Hill North Retail Center, in which BlueHub Capital made a $3 million New Markets Tax Credit investment. The team’s first objective was to bring a full service grocery store to this longtime food desert. “The grocery store was the launching pad,” says Markel. “In every study, fresh food was identified as the community’s highest need.”
Yet, the Market@25th goes far beyond a traditional grocery, with a café and a bakery—it also houses a new Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Health Hub, which provides area residents convenient health screenings, health education and help managing chronic illnesses. The market is complemented by a complex with 54 new affordable-rate apartments.
“There is a need for more housing in the area, but the apartments also help create critical mass for the grocery. Often, groceries that open in a food desert fail, because there is not sufficient economic support,” Markel says. “The odds of success are better with all the pieces coming together.”
Job creation is another critical part of the project’s mission. The grocery hired close to 100 people, many of whom have roots in the neighborhood. In addition, the adjacent J. Sargeant Reynolds Culinary School trains 800 new chefs a year. Markel notes, “Richmond has become a food town, with over 9,000 culinary jobs,” jobs that can be filled by the school’s graduates. The school is expected to draw students from across the Southeast. “That will bring a lot of vitality to Church Hill North.”