By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The co-owner of the Bluefield Plaza said Tuesday that he has requested a meeting with K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., and Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, in hopes of resolving the controversy surrounding the old Kroger store on Cumberland Road.
The Bluefield Board of Directors passed a resolution in December asking both Tom Lilly and Steve Smith, the chief executive officer of K-VA-T Food Stores, Inc., to attend Tuesday’s board meeting to explain why the old Kroger building is still empty. Neither man showed up for the meeting. However, Lilly told the Daily Telegraph Tuesday that it is his desire to see a new grocery store inside of the old Kroger.
“I wrote a letter to K-VA-T and I suggested we have a meeting with John Shott, who agreed to act as a mediator, and the mayor (Linda Whalen),” Lilly said. “I spoke with K-VA-T (Tuesday). We are supposed to be having a meeting.”
Lilly said keeping the old Kroger building empty doesn’t help anyone.
“Even though they are paying us rent, it is still vacant,” Lilly said. “It’s to our advantage to have a full-service grocery store in there — just as it is to the city of Bluefield and all of the merchants there.”
Smith was out of town Tuesday and unavailable for comment regarding the board meeting, according to a company spokeswoman. K-VA-T is the corporate owners of the Food City chain. The company currently operates Food City stores in Bluefield, Va., and Claypool Hill.
Whalen said Smith sent the board a letter saying he was unable to attend Tuesday’s meeting due to a prior commitment.
Whalen said Shott has agreed to work on the city’s behalf with Lilly in an attempt to resolve the issue and get a new grocery store in Bluefield.
“Tom Lilly is in agreement to sit down with the board and John Shott to try to work on a possible solution to this problem,” Whalen said. “So that is where we are on this continuing problem. This isn’t something we are going to just let remain dormant. We are going to continue pushing this issue.”
Whalen said when K-VA-T Food Stores Inc. signed the lease with Lilly, they indicated they would develop a grocery store at the old Kroger site. However, the building has remained vacant. Smith previously told the Daily Telegraph it would be more cost effective for the company to build a new grocery store than to renovate the old Kroger.
A resolution passed by the board in December states that the ongoing vacancy is harming existing Cumberland Road businesses, residents and the city as a whole. City Economic Development Director Greg Shrewsbury estimates that the city is losing more than $1 million in annual revenue due to the vacancy. Shrewsbury said the old Kroger store is the best existing site the city for a new grocery store.
The board also is asking city residents to not shop at Food City in Bluefield, Va., until the lease issue is resolved.
“The citizens need to make Food City aware of how upset they are regarding their lack of concern for the citizens of Bluefield,” Whalen said. “The only thing that means anything to them is where we spend our dollars. That’s how they measure our concern is where we are spending our dollars. If we don’t spend them with Food City, they will recognize our concerns.”
A large crowd of citizens attended Tuesday’s meeting. Richard Dillon, a city resident and also surveyor of Mercer County, asked the board members to work with K-VA-T Food Stores.
“Let’s try to get Food City in there,” Dillon said of the empty Kroger building. “Food City does support Bluefield. This I know. They support Bluefield in a good way. If you can’t bring Kroger back you might as well go with them. They will treat you right and all. We do need a grocery store in here. I don’t care if it is Food City or whoever. They are good people and nice for trading with you.”
Dillon also said he was pleased with the job done to date by Interim Police Chief D.M. “Dennis” Dillow.
In other action Tuesday, the board approved the first reading of an ordinance to rezone a portion of College Avenue from Maryland Avenue going east to Bland Street. The area in question is proposed to be rezoned from a multi-family residential district to a single family residential district.
The city has received complaints regarding the influx of rental property on College Avenue.
“We’ve been doing code enforcement seriously for the last several years, but maybe not in an organized fashion,” Whalen said. “We are trying to look at some of the key areas in Bluefield and try to stop decline and make these areas more favorable for housing and business. We are taking a serious look at Cumberland Road and what needs to be done there. The first major street we are addressing is College Avenue. Single family dwellings are often turned into multi-family dwellings, and with that comes landlords that don’t take care of their property as they should. Then that spreads to the next street.”
In other action, City Manager Jim Ferguson thanked the Hugh I. Shott Jr. Foundation for its assistance and support in helping with parks and recreational needs in the city; thanked all of the volunteers who helped to make the annual Holiday of Lights display possible; thanked the Bluefield Fire Department, which responded to 789 different calls in 2012; and said the Bluefield Police Department was able to recently secure $10,000 in new and needed equipment.
Ferguson also said the street department crews recently picked up 57 truck loads of leafs. Ferguson said if city residents still have leafs scattered around their property, they should rake them up, bag them up and place them on the curb for pick-up.
Board member Mary Frances Brammer thanked all of the citizens who attended Tuesday’s meeting. All too often, Brammer said seats at the city board meetings are empty instead of full like they were on Tuesday.
Board member Deb Sarver said she is retiring as coordinator of the Holiday of Lights.
“And I just want to thank the citizens who volunteered and helped over the last four years,” Sarver said. “I was on the commission years ago when it started. I just want to say I did this because I enjoy giving back to the city.”
Board member Pete Sternloff said city residents are reminded of the need to support existing city businesses. He pointed to the recent closure of Appalachian Tire on Bluefield Avenue.
In other action, Isaac Preston, a concerned citizen, stood up and displayed a tree-shaped ornament created with scrap copper. He used it to symbolize Bluefield’s past and present.
Preston, who was wearing a “Team Blue” badge, said it is important for all citizens to work together to lift up Bluefield’s spirit. He said it was possible to celebrate the city’s past while also embracing a new future.
— Contact Charles Owens at email@example.com