Jeff Pelline: Trader Joe’s or Walgreens? Get real |

Jeff Pelline: Trader Joe’s or Walgreens? Get real

As “investor/partners” (AKA, businesses) of the Nevada County Economic Resource Council, a group of us are getting together this morning for an annual breakfast to discuss the local economy. It got me thinking: Nowhere is our community’s economic-development identity crisis more visible than at the corner of Sutton Way and Brunswick Drive in Glenbrook (AKA Burger) Basin.

Many people were disappointed, even indignant, when Trader Joe’s didn’t snap up the vacant lot that used to be Jim “Adios” Keil Chevrolet for one of its cool grocery stores.

Alas, Walgreens, a boring pharmacy chain, did instead.

We might not like it, but we shouldn’t be surprised: We’re one of oldest counties in the state, even the nation, and growing older. Walgreens (“greens” as in money) sees the potential for high-margin (legal) pharmaceutical sales, even though Rite-Aid and Longs are very nearby.

So we continue to dream, and speculate endlessly, about a Trader Joe’s.

Well, dream on, because the chances of landing a Trader Joe’s here are slimmer than getting the Dorsey Drive interchange built, at least for a while.

In fact, Trader Joe’s probably won’t come here until after we build the Dorsey Drive interchange; the Loma Rica Ranch housing project; and the Bel-Air market industrial complex, complete with two fast-food outlets, at Higgins Corner.

Why? Because Trader Joe’s is expanding in metro markets or where the population is growing faster than ours. Our population is growing at a scant 1 percent a year.

I have a little more insight about Trader Joe’s than most. Our family was friends with the original Trader Joe’s family back in the late ’60s when the business was started in South Pasadena.

Some of you flatlander transplants may remember the story, too: Trader Joe’s, founded by Stanford MBA grad Joe Coulombe, used to be called Pronto Markets. My dad and I used to go to the one in South Pas for a big pastrami sandwich after Little League games. Joe’s daughter and I went to grade school together, and my dad Joe and the other Joe used to talk about cheap wines (long before “Two-Buck Chuck.”) L.A. was a great place to grow up in the ’60s – more “drive-ins” than “drive bys.”

Back then, Joe’s idea was simple: People were becoming more mobile and much busier (at least in their minds), and his smaller grocery stores offered food connoisseurs quick-meal options at reasonable prices. Inexpensive wines and food bargains bought in bulk from mysterious places (more reachable via the newly launched Boeing 747 in 1970) were a hallmark of his plan, as well. Throw in the Hula shirts for the store clerks, and it was “groovy.”

I don’t think anybody, including Joe, realized how the grocery store chain would explode and develop a cult following, sort of like In-n-Out Burger. Trader Joe’s now has 280 stores in 23 states – but still not here.

Rumors (more like wishful thinking) persist that a Trader Joe’s will come to Auburn, if not Grass Valley, sometime soon. But I’m not holding my breath.

Here’s where Trader Joe’s is opening stores next: Atlanta, Ga. (in the well-off suburb of Buckhead); Bend, Ore.; Brooklyn, N.Y.; Chino Hills, Calif.; Claremont, Calif.; Larkspur, Calif.; Phoenix, Ariz. (in well-heeled Paradise Valley); Redding, Calif.; Richmond, Va.; and Woodland Hills, Calif.

Our demographics and growth patterns don’t quite match up, at least for now.

Take Bend, Ore., for example. It’s a wonderful place: Similar to here in some respects, at least compared to Brooklyn. Bend offers a scenic setting and year-round outdoor recreation, including fishing, hiking, golf, kayaking and skiing at Mt. Bachelor. Community events include parades and picnics, even a “freeze your buns” run.

But the similarities end there. Bend’s population stands at 77,875, and, more notable, it is the sixth-fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S.

I guess there are trade-offs to landing a Trader Joe’s in your community.

Redding (pop. 88,000), where Trader Joe’s also is planning to open a store, has an impressive economic-development effort underway that is focused on bringing higher-paying jobs to the community.

“I’m just looking to attract the type of companies that will employ my kids so I can see my grandkids without having to travel,” said EDC president Greg O’Sullivan, who plans on retiring in Redding. Amen.

My wife and I understand the trade-offs of growth, and we’re perfectly happy to drive to the nearest Trader Joe’s in Roseville from time to time but mostly “shop locally.”

Many of our pine-tree residents, however, pine for a Trader Joe’s that is closer to home.

At least some of them are the same ones who are opposed to Dorsey Drive, opposed to Loma Rica, opposed to the Bel-Air Market and even opposed to a Walgreens near a freeway interchange that isn’t “pedestrian friendly.” Some of them also are the same people who prefer an economic-development strategy of tourism (“buy your trinkets and go home!”) to one of generating more high-paying jobs that can help sustain our economy year-round. A diversity of opinions is an asset, not a liability.

But as we ramp up a communitywide debate about economic development – in an election year, and as we bring on new city managers – it’s important for all of us to remember: We can’t have it both ways.

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