Enter Steve Goessling, a former Certified Public Accountant and owner of three independent grocery stores in the area. Goessling purchased Keller’s in May 2011 with promises to reopen a new market by January 2012. January came and went, as did February, March and now April, leaving Clifton residents asking — where’s the new supermarket?
When asked why the Ludlow Avenue market still sits in a state of dilapidation, owner Steve Goessling simply shakes his head and mutters a single word, “financing.” After pouring more than $350,000 of personal funds and countless man-hours, he admits his patience is nearing its limits. He says he never imagined he would be in this position — a building still empty three months after its scheduled opening. He ruminates about purchasing the store back in May 2011, anticipating a speedy transition based on the appeal and location of the property.
“I sit on what may be the most exciting and appealing location to put a truly independent neighborhood supermarket serving the diverse and loyal community of Clifton,” he says. “It’s fantastic.”
Unfortunately, local banks don’t share Goessling’s enthusiasm for the project. He says post-bailout banks tend to deal in absolutes and not abstracts when it comes to projected earnings. Even when he points to the 40,000 potential shoppers living within a half-mile radius of the store and the 50,000 who pour in each day to work at the university and neighboring hospitals, banks still looks at the project as risky. He contends financers primarily look to the legacy of the previous owner, Keller’s IGA, along with the closure of the majority of independent markets in the region when assessing the store’s potential.
After spending the better part of a year approaching numerous local banks, he says that, ironically, the only viable offers have come from out-of-state financers.
He says local banks see big-box retailers as the only desirable entity for Cincinnati shoppers, a notion he finds ridiculous in a walking community like Clifton where residents are unlikely to walk home with a 50-roll pack of toilet paper. He contends the neighborhood banks don’t really know their neighborhood.
“The whole project has worn me out to the point that I do sometimes start to wonder should I continue to fight,” he says. “But when I visualize the community, the customers and the store’s potential — it’s very difficult to be in this business and not want to be part of this Clifton project.”
Eschewing negativity, Goessling says he’s spent the interim improving the store design. Once re-opened, the Goessling’s Gaslight Market will carry grocery essentials along with a variety of ready-to-eat meals, fresh produce, sushi and baked goods, many of which will be provided by local vendors. Because of the store’s strong ties to the community, Goessling hopes the city of Cincinnati will pitch in to provide some creative financing options. According to the city’s Economic Development Director Odis Jones, the city is more than willing to work with Goessling as long as he meets all necessary criteria.
“We are very supportive of this project,” Jones says. “We think it’s a good anchor for that retail corridor. Steve has some obligations on his side, things that he has to go and get done, and he’s promised and indicated that he’s working on getting that done. We’re going to be prepared to move it forward when that happens.”
Until things actually move forward, other businesses on Ludlow continue to see foot traffic diminish. Pete Schneider, president of Clifton Town Meeting community council, contends that without an anchor store, Clifton residents not only shop for groceries elsewhere but spend other time and money outside the community. He says the majority of residents live in Clifton because of its walkability — a place to park the car on Friday and not have to drive again until Monday. During the past six months, he says residents call incessantly to find out when the market will reopen. In terms of financing, he argues local banks simply don’t comprehend that a grocery store acts as the keystone to a small community.
“The viability of a business district is also tied to the viability of a neighborhood — so if goes the business district, so goes the neighborhood,” he says. “So a short-sighted approach of not supporting a local grocer not only just puts one business in jeopardy, it puts the entire neighborhood in jeopardy.”
To help fill the void, Ace Hardware owner Bryan Valerius says he now sells freshly baked bread in his store from Shadeau Breads on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. The response has been so overwhelming that he’s also taken to selling fresh produce in the hardware store as well. As a small business owner in Clifton, he says he finds objections to financing obtuse, as he’s living proof how a small retailer can thrive against big-box stores when embraced by its community. He says the bottom line is: Clifton residents miss their grocery store.
“If you stood in here today, people probably ask a hundred times what have we heard about the grocery store,” he says. “Every little neighborhood needs a place where you can go to get food and things like that. Keller’s was the anchor of the neighborhood.”
Clifton resident Abby Moran professes she’s been “wandering the grocery wilderness” since Keller’s closed. Moran confirms the assertion that traveling to a grocery store leads to shopping at other alternate locations, as she often runs errands and makes purchases she would have normally made in Clifton. She confesses she’s also walking a lot less because she used to visit the former market at least twice a week.
“One of the things that really attracted us was the fact that we could just park our cars and really live our whole life here in the neighborhood and really have a walking, vibrant community with full-fledged business district,” she says. “So it certainly diminishes our quality of life and kind of the Clifton character that we love. We’re very anxious for the grocery to reopen.” ©