Arroyo, O’Malley lay out Whole Foods strategies

March 18, 2011
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Local City Councilors Felix Arroyo and Matt O’Malley recently laid out their separate strategies for deal-making with Whole Foods Market as the company seeks to open a Hyde Square location.

The two councilors are JP residents who recently met privately with Whole Foods officials at City Hall. Speaking separately, they voiced frustrations with the surprise announcement of Whole Foods coming to the former Hi-Lo Foods at 415 Centre St., and talked about bargains to be struck. But they also expressed different visions about leverage over the deal.

Whole Foods must hold its promised but still unscheduled community meeting immediately, Arroyo said in a Gazette interview this week. And the market must deliver “basic facts” about its hours, parking and local hiring policy, he said.

“I think the time to meet with the community is now,” Arroyo said, adding that Whole Foods officials told him they will meet after hiring store management. “I don’t think they should answer [key questions] a day before they open up.”

Whole Foods was a hot topic at an open forum O’Malley held March 7 at Hyde Square’s Connolly Branch Library. O’Malley laid blame on Knapp Foods, the company that closed Hi-Lo and leased the building to Whole Foods without community input.

“The process wasn’t there, and that’s unacceptable to me,” O’Malley said. But now that Whole Foods has signed a lease, there is no way he can block it, O’Malley said. Instead, he said his role is to “bring a palatable agreement to most” on the way the store works with the community.

O’Malley said that Whole Foods officials seemed responsive to his suggestion that the store sell Latino foods wholesale to local bodegas.

“I can’t accept the premise that Whole Foods coming will destroy this neighborhood,” O’Malley said. “This neighborhood is bigger and better” than the debate over Whole Foods, he added.

Arroyo said at a community forum last month that he opposes Whole Foods in JP. But, he told the Gazette this week, he is a regular customer of a Whole Foods in Dedham, and he has an “open mind” on the market’s Hyde Square plans.

“I prefer locally owned businesses. I’m not going to apologize for this,” Arroyo said. “What I think Whole Foods can do is come in and immediately set an example” for doing good local business, he said.

Whole Foods has said the JP store will create 100 jobs. Arroyo said it is important to make sure that most of those jobs go to JP residents, but that Whole Foods has not described its hiring policy. The company’s highly touted policy of donating to local causes also needs more explanation, he said.

Information on store hours and parking are necessary for everyone, even if they already support Whole Foods, Arroyo said. “I think it’s irresponsible for me, as an elected official, to come out and support a project when I don’t have basic facts,” he said.

“We ask small businesses to go through this,” Arroyo said, referring to public meetings about new stores’ basic operating information. “We’re not going to ask an international, billion-dollar corporation to do this? I would be thrown off the island if I did that for a coffee shop.”

Like O’Malley, Arroyo also has an eye on supporting Hyde Square’s smaller grocers. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation (JPNDC) recently announced it is in negotiation with Latino grocers for new commercial space at the former Blessed Sacrament Church site at 363 Centre St.

Arroyo said he was involved in connecting small grocers with the JPNDC, and named Dorchester’s Brothers Market as one of his recommendations. JPNDC spokesperson Sally Swenson declined to comment, and no one answered the phone at Brothers Market.

Arroyo said he suggested grocers who not only might carry Latino cultural foods, but who also would be affordable to any working-class people.

Rebeca Oliveira contributed to this article.

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