Northwest Roanoke Residents See Glimmer of Hope As Grocery Store Plans Take Shape

The Market on Melrose is slated to open in November in the heart of a food desert. The store will create up to 70 jobs in its first year.

Resident Gevendin Lewis predicted Melrose Plaza will become a hub of activity and said she will do her grocery shopping at The Market on Melrose. PHOTO BY HENRI GENDREAU FOR THE ROANOKE RAMBLER

Northwest Roanoke residents expressed hope Tuesday that a long-awaited grocery store will soon extinguish the area’s reputation as a food desert.

The Market on Melrose is slated to open in November and create up to 70 jobs in its first year, Donna Davis, director of community engagement at Goodwill Industries of the Valleys, told a handful of residents at the nonprofit’s first community forum since the project broke ground.

“I’m glad to see it come to fruition,” Anthony Jennings, 40, said. “Because a lot of times, in Northwest Roanoke when we have plans and things, they don’t always pan out.”

Goodwill, which will operate the grocery store itself, is turning its former campus at Melrose Avenue and 24th Street into a community hub complete with a cafe, bank, a healthcare center and a free high school for adults with childcare services.

“Roanoke was once home to the Valley’s Black Wall Street,” Goodwill says on a webpage for the project. “Now Melrose Plaza honors this legacy by bringing vital, life-enhancing services back to the Northwest area. Among its many goals, Melrose Plaza will help restore cultural richness to the community.”

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Construction fences currently surround the western portion of the 100,000-square-foot facility that includes the Melrose Branch Library.

Davis said Goodwill is investing $20 million into the project, and Roanoke City has also given Goodwill $10 million in federal pandemic relief funds for the effort.

Those federal dollars are why Goodwill is racing against an end-of-year deadline to open the grocery store.

Resident Gevendin Lewis expressed surprise that major grocery chains have not returned to the area in decades.

“It’s something about the median salaries and all of that, they don’t think we can sustain a grocery store,” Davis replied. “Even though we had one in this community for decades until they just decided to leave.”

Lewis, 86, said after going to the swimming pool on Fridays, she heads to the farmers market for fresh vegetables. She asked if the store will have those.

Davis said the store will have fresh produce and local meats. Goodwill is partnering with MDI, a wholesale grocery distributor, on the store.

“We will also make sure that we have fresh affordable food,” Davis said. “It’s not going to be a grocery store where you walk in you say, ‘Well, it's pretty, but I can't afford an apple.’ No, that's not what we're going for here.”

Lewis predicted that the plaza will become a hub of activity.

“I'm excited for it to open so that I can come down here and do my shopping,” Lewis said. “I live about four blocks from here, and I'm going to make it my store.”

A rendering of a main entrance and lobby at Melrose Plaza, which opens into the grocery store, at right. COURTESY OF GOODWILL INDUSTRIES OF THE VALLEYS

A branch from the Bank of Botetourt and the plaza’s health clinic are estimated to open in 2025, Davis said. She said the bank was the only one to respond to a request for banking services.

Goodwill’s adult high school, called the Excel Center, won’t be ready until 2026.

The healthcare piece of the project, which Goodwill is calling a wellness center, will offer medical, dental and behavioral health services from a range of providers including Carilion Clinic, LewisGale, Alleghany Health, New Horizons Health, Bradley Free Clinic and Delta Dental.

“I call it the United Way of wellness centers,” Davis said.

Preventative care will include addressing diabetes, hypertension and obesity, according to Davis’s presentation. Goodwill will track key metrics that include reduced health disparities, reduced use of medications and increased life expectancy.

Last April, Goodwill purchased two other properties around the nascent plaza: a former city fire station — most recently home to the anti-violence group Peacemakers, Inc. — as well as an adjacent auto shop, Maxey Seat Cover Center.

Jennings asked about plans for those properties. Davis said Goodwill decided to buy the land “because we didn't want someone else to come in there and put something weird over there, like a strip joint or something.”

“There will be plans for that in the future,” she added. Right now, “our whole being is getting the grocery store open.”

Correction (3/27/24) — An earlier version of this story misstated the role the nonprofits Local Environmental Agriculture Project (LEAP) and Feeding America Southwest Virginia. Goodwill is working with those nonprofits to support their existing feeding programs, but those entities will not be providing produce at The Market on Melrose. The story has also been updated to clarify that Melrose Plaza was always envisioned with Goodwill operating the grocery store.

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