There is much to admire in the determination of Rev. Bill Winston and his organization at Living Word Christian Center to keep retail viable at the Forest Park Plaza, the Roosevelt Road shopping center owned by the church.
The two anchor positions at the plaza have proved problematic in recent years. The longtime Kmart store at the west end of the strip gave way to the short-lived HOBO home improvement store. HOBO closed quickly and the space has been essentially empty since late in 2018.
The 70,000-square-foot grocery anchor at the east end was a seemingly stable Ultra Foods for many years until its corporate parent filed for bankruptcy in 2017. Its replacement was Living Fresh Market, a new venture from independent grocers better known as Leamington Foods, a West Side operator with an unsteady reputation for service and freshness.
Living Fresh opened in May 2018 with high hopes but seemed to be doing a low volume of business in a store that needed steadier traffic. The COVID pandemic certainly didn’t help.
Now Winston’s organization has taken back the keys, hired a consultant with grocery experience, and is operating the store on its own. And while it has remained open, the consultant is asking for patience as the store transitions to a new supplier and makes other necessary changes in its operations. Joseph Welsh, the consultant, offers assurances the store will be in full swing in advance of the coming holiday season.
That is good and hopeful news.
The investment being made by Living Word is impressive but also suggests it has run out of other grocery operator options in what is a fast-changing business segment. Customers, including many locals sounding off on Facebook, want high-end options with prepared foods, as well as online and delivery services.
Competition is fierce, whether it comes from Forest Park stalwart Ed’s Way or the neighboring Walmart Supercenter. A new-fangled Amazon grocery store is about ready to open a mile south in North Riverside with game-changing technology.
This won’t be easy. But with its megachurch attached on the south end of the mall, keeping Forest Park Plaza viable is important to the overall enterprise. And with an entrepreneurial streak deep in its DNA, we know that Living Word Christian Center is going to bring all it has to this effort.