If everything goes well, a new grocery store could open its doors in downtown Saskatoon as early as this winter.
On Wednesday, the City of Saskatoon sent out a press release stating that a Vancouver real estate company, Arbutus Properties, had proposed building a full-service grocery store in the Midtown Plaza mall.
The company has already opened its first Pitchfork Market + Kitchen location in the Meadows neighbourhood, on the eastern outskirts of the city.
Pitchfork's director of retail operations, Chris Bryhun, said an expansion into the city's downtown just makes sense.
"The team and myself sort of see this as an opportunity to get into a space that is underrepresented and honestly has been in need of a grocery store for quite some time," said Bryhun.
"The city has been actively pursuing this for quite some time. And we're hoping that we are the answer to that situation for the city right now."
The company said it is in its final planning stages for the store, which is set to open by either late 2022 or early 2023. Pitchfork will offer a full-service grocery store, a sit-down restaurant and prepared meals.
The new grocery store will set up shop in a space in the mall originally planned for a Mountain Equipment Co-op location. It was partially developed but never opened.
For years, Saskatoon has been trying to lure a grocery store into the city's downtown. The area, including the neighbourhoods of Riversdale and Pleasant Hill, has been described as a food desert, with scarce options for grocery stores.
Rachel Engler-Stringer, an associate professor in the school of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, said the store will give people in the area more food options.
"It's really accessible both by bus and by and on foot," said Engler-Stringer.
"It certainly has the potential to benefit Riversdale, which, despite the fact that there have been some more higher-income people that have moved into the neighbourhood, continues to be a quite low-income neighborhood."
However, while the store will help people who can afford to buy the food, she said low-income people in the area will continue to struggle.
An inner-city grocery store project she was a part of closed its doors because people didn't have the money to support it.
"The reason why the Good Food Junction failed was because people simply did not have enough money to buy food," she said.
"As much as access was improved, people didn't have the money. So, this does not have the potential of benefiting people who are seriously food insecure."
Meanwhile, Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University, said the proposed store would be good for the area.
Accessible grocery stores can be a strong driver for people moving to an area, he said.
"The one thing you can do to attract people downtown is with food," said Charlebois.
"With a place like that, you want to do a mixture of things between retail and service to get some traffic in during the day when people are working and serve those people a sandwich or soup or something, and then they can grab something for home."
However, Charlebois said that the store will have to be careful of factors like theft. Grocery stores already operate on tight margins, and historically theft has been higher in grocery stores in downtown cores, he said.
"You want to be really careful with that, with how the place is supported by security, especially with with a high inflation rate."
The professor is also concerned with the lasting effect COVID-19 will have on downtown areas. Even though more people are returning to the office, he said more people are working from home more often.
"We are expecting about 40 per cent of the workforce to work at least one day a week from home on average," he said.
"That's a lot less traffic for downtown. And so you've got to wonder, what's going to happen to all of those stores?"
The City of Saskatoon is looking at adding extra traffic measures to the area once construction begins in earnest on the proposed new store.
A city administration report recommends installing a full traffic signal at the intersection of Auditorium Avenue and Idylwyld Drive, removing the median on Idylwyld Drive between Auditorium Avenue and 22nd Street, and installing a traffic island at the intersection of 21st Street and Idylwyld Drive.
These changes were all previously identified in the city's Imagine Idylwyld project plan.
The report recommends that the city complete these changes once the grocery store reaches a certain build-out point. The traffic measures are expected to cost $220,000, the report says.
A requested tax abatement for the grocery store is not recommended, as the available space at Midtown Plaza has already been approved for a tax abatement.