The Mid Town development can thank the buy local campaign

Before we talk about the Whole Foods Effect, and how it helped bring the massive Mid Town development to Bayside, it is important to understand why Whole Foods came to Portland in the first place.

Whole Foods Supermarket chooses its locations for affluent populations who prefer organic/healthy products. While “Buy Local” campaigns cover a spectrum of issues and demographics, locally-sourced organic food is often at the core of any “Buy Local” mission. Naturally, not every locally-produced product costs more, and not everyone who chooses to pay more for local products is affluent; but it is fair to say that that some of the leading locavore restaurants: Hugos, Fore Street, Vinland, Miyake are all of rather a pricey fine-dining establishments ilk and that Portland is a leader in the local, organic, non-GMO movement with many farmers, politicians, food producers, restaurateurs, and the general public showing great commitment to the issue.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan has made local agriculture a key initiative in his tenure. The Mayor has pointed out that Maine imports a huge percentage of its food from out of state and he is looking to local farmers to increase Maine’s food sovereignty. Missing from the mayor’s analysis of course is the amount of food Maine exports. We could easily be self-sufficient on potatoes; but it isn’t as economically viable (or gastronomically interesting) as an import/export model, hence things like Whole Foods.

The degree to which the progressive politics of the area really factored into Whole Foods plonking down in West Bayside is ultimately a matter of speculation (siting it on a highway exit near the population center of the region was certainly a factor). But one can’t help but think that the Whole Foods staff (lots of bearded guys in flannel) gives cred to the company’s image of a purveyor of wholesomeness and provides an educated and knowledgeable labor pool. (I once had someone at the Whole Foods meat counter earnestly explain to me that the “pork shoulders cost more the more local they are.”)

In short, in addition from demographic economics, Whole Foods looks at things like Green Party membership, bicycle culture, and buy local campaigns when choosing locations for new stores because this factors create and ethos.

While I am personally ambivalent about the Buy Local Campaign and less than enthusiastic about going in, or even near the Whole Foods, I cannot deny that what happened after Whole Foods came to Portland has been great.

Development in East Bayside is what happened. For those who have not noticed, East bayside is the hottest neighborhood in the state due largely to a boom in local food and brew producers. A quick run down includes three breweries, several other fermentories, several food trucks, a winter farmer’s market, two bakeries, a revived neighborhood association, one small craft coffee company, a large fabric arts studio, several non-profits, and most recently the re-placement of a huge facility for a little big coffee-roasting and brewing company who has been at the forefront of Portland’s Buy Local movement. (If this list is incomplete or inaccurate I am not surprised, it just shows how quickly changes are happening.)

This is what is known as “The Whole Foods Effect,” a rapid rise in real estate values around a new Whole Foods Supermarket. The Portland case is interesting for several reasons.

First of all, the initial economic activity has been of a commercial and food based nature. Part of the brilliance of Whole Foods is the implicit idea that everything in the store is of an above-average quality which justifies the above-average pricing. (Incidentally, it was just the other day that I fell victim to this myself. On a rare visit to the store I could not pass up the “bargain” of $2 for 11oz of some store-brand coffee. Inexpensive as it was, it still isn’t cheaper than another store’s own brand coffee that I normally buy; but, I figured, it would be better. It wasn’t.)

It seems that Whole Food’s ethos of marketing the ordinary as extraordinary seems to extend beyond the store walls. While Bayside (East and West) have a lot going for it, having the behemoth supermarket come to the area certainly seems to have helped give the area the seal of approval which has create a viable business climate where one wasn’t before.

Another remarkable aspect of The Whole Foods Effect on Bayside is that from a progressive planning point of view, everything about the development of the Whole Foods store is wrong: the building has no interaction with the major street that it sits on, the parking lot is considerably bigger than the store, pedestrian access sucks, bicycle access sucks, the pricing is way out of scale of the neighborhood’s mean income, parking spaces are swollen to SUV size; and yet, none of that seems to have mattered. The area’s revival continues.

It is not surprising then, that Mid Town changed its plan to begin phase one not at the west end of the development area (on the snow pile behind Trader Joe’s) but on the east end, across from Whole Foods. While it is somewhat ironic that Whole Foods will now be a local supermarket; the Mid Town development is bringing housing to a long derelict site in a flood plain without major public subsidy. Although public sentiment is mixed on the Mid Town development, Portland needs market rate housing; the jobs, the tax-revenue, and the out of state investment doesn’t hurt either.

While it is easy for someone like me to be circumspect about the real economic benefits of “buying local” (whatever that means) Whole Foods, East Bayside, and now Mid Town all have Buy Local to thank. And so do I, and so should you.

Thank you Buy Local.

 

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Zack Barowitz

About Zack Barowitz

Zack Barowitz is a writer, artist, and flâneur. He is the radio host of "This Land Is" on WMPG Tuesday nights at 7:30. His work can be seen at ZacharyBarowitz.com.