COLUMBIA — Two on-site convenience stores in Columbia Housing Authority apartment complexes will not only spare residents from having to go far for that carton of milk but will also help fellow residents learn valuable career skills.
The minimart project is the brainchild of the CHA Board of Directors, housing authority CEO Phil Steinhaus said. The board first came up with the idea four years ago while building new laundry rooms and felt the addition would fill a need for the community’s residents.
The store in the Bear Creek complex on Elleta Boulevard opened on a trial basis in February 2007 but was not publicized. Grand openings for that minimart and a new one at the Lincoln/Unity neighborhood will be held Feb. 1.
The goals of the program are two-fold: Provide a service to neighborhood residents while offering retail and sales training for those interested in working in the stores. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant through the Opportunities for Families Project paid for two retail clerk positions and a resident retailer supervisory position.
Steinhaus hopes the project will eventually break even. A typical month’s revenue for the Bear Creek store has been around $150, he said.
“Our goal is to provide a service to our residents and an employment opportunity to our residents. We’ll just see how it goes.”
Steinhaus said residents and non-residents will pay the same amount for items. Inventory is purchased from Sam’s Club and Wal-Mart in bulk and marked up slightly to help with costs not covered by the grant. Prices for products are competitive and generally lower than the average convenience store cost. Customers can pay with cash as well as with Food Stamp Electronic Benefits Transfer cards.
The authority also considered security in designs for the minimarts, Steinhaus said. The stores are equipped with bank teller-style windows with bulletproof glass and security cameras. Residents must use a key card to access the area.
Lolita Lucas, coordinator of the Opportunities for Families Project, trains minimart employees at the J.W. “Blind” Boone Center, which is a short stroll from the Lincoln/Unity minimart. At the center, a handmade sign on the wall in one of the resource rooms reads, “Rejection is God’s protection.” Even in late afternoon, the training center is a hub of voices and activity; several residents and staff wait in line to speak with Lucas, the first stop in the career training process.
Initially, Lucas went door to door to survey community residents about what they would like to see in their stores.
“Since it was being used by our residents, I thought they should have a say in what’s being sold,” Lucas said, adding that she and other authority staff sometimes “tweak” the inventory in order to round out the selection.
Lucas said customers can choose from a menu of available items. Milk, sugar and bread will be staples at both stores, while Bear Creek has stocked additional items such as ice cream, tuna, pasta, dried fruit and household items such as feminine hygiene products, toilet paper and detergent on a trial basis.
Staff members, all community residents themselves, are rotated as frequently as possible so that a maximum number of people can benefit. Lucas mentioned a recent success story from the program: a retail sales graduate has been voted employee of the month numerous times and has received several raises in her new job.
Bear Creek’s retail clerk, Gamal Dirar, has worked part time at the store since Dec. 20.
“I think the store is a good idea, keeps kids from problems, crossing the street to go to the gas station,” he said.
Dirar, who attends Columbia College, also works at World Harvest.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I love the team I work with.”
Bear Creek resident Nocomus Peal said the stores are proving quite convenient.
“The people love the store,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of older people who can’t get out, and they send the younger people out to get it.”
Lucas agreed with Steinhaus that empowerment, not revenue, is the ultimate goal.
“The program is designed to give people the skills if they don’t have them and to brush up on their skills if they do have them. It’s all about long-term economic self-sufficiency.”
The Lincoln/Unity store, at 225 Unity St., has a tentative opening date set for Jan. 23. Regular hours for both Lincoln/Unity and Bear Creek are 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. The Bear Creek store is at 1115 Elleta Blvd.
An official grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony for both facilities is open to the public and scheduled for 2 p.m. on Feb. 1 at the Lincoln/Unity store.