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One of Highland Hills’ only sources of fresh produce and meats, Save U More Grocery, is closing its doors for three months to undergo renovations.

The store sits in southeast Oak Cliff in City Council member Tennell Atkins’ District 8, a so-called food desert where 20,000 residents don’t have access to healthy food options within a five-mile radius of their homes. Save U More averages between 100 to 150 customers a day.

“This store is vital to many of the residents in this district who lack fresh food options,” Atkins said in a press release. “The temporary closing is necessary to ensure the store’s future success, thus making a meaningful impact in the lives of our young people and seniors.”

With the help of Atkins, the city forked over a $2.8 million grant to offset the costs related to acquisition of the property, demolition, construction of the store and its equipment. Atkins could not be reached for comment. The store officially opened in 2016.

Activists and residents from Highland Hills say this will hurt the community, especially those who don’t have reliable means of transportation.

“The potential closing of Save U More rids the community of options,” Yafeuh Balogun, an activist in Highland Hills, said. “I personally think the store should stay open, because not everyone has a car in Highland Hills. It makes life easier for those that need a little bit of help.”

Davante Peters, who is running for the District 8 council seat, said the situation is a catch-22. On one hand, he said people in the community depend on the store. On the other, residents have told him the quality of the food isn’t the best and the shelves are often barley stocked.

“I hope the renovations on the building lead the way for renovations on the quality of food that this particular community has access to and that this will become a grocery model that the neighborhood will feel proud of,” Peters said.

Amanda Vandergriff, a Highland Hills resident, said she hardly ever shops at Save U More because prices are steep and “the food there is garbage.” She prefers the Cash Saver grocery store on Ledbetter Drive.

Joseph Kemp, a developer and the store owner, said running the Save U More has been a struggle since it opened in 2016 and the pandemic has made it more challenging.

“Business is slow due to the pandemic and this time will be used to find a new operator and make modifications to the facility to increase the shopping of local residents,” Kemp said in a press release about the closing. Kemp could not be reached for comment.

In July, a Gofundme campaign was set up to try to raise $600,000 for the store. According to the campaign details, it was set up by Kemp’s granddaughter De’Jonae.

On the Gofundme page, De’Jonae said her grandfather has been considering a buyout because of the financial burdens that go along with running the store. Stocking the store, having the Dallas Police Department provide security, paying employees and for equipment or building maintenance all costs about $650,000 a year. These expenses aside, De’Jonae said they also want to invest in a delivery service for their customers. As of Friday, the campaign had raised $3,600.

Kemp had never operated a grocery store, as most of his experience is in developing real estate through his construction company Kemp Repair and Remodeling, or KRR Construction, so the city took a gamble when it gave him the nearly $3 million grant. Kemp’s company was paid to tear down the building on the site (another failed grocery store), build the new one and run it.

Back then, the store was one in a franchise of grocers called Save-A-Lot. The name and ownership changed in April. Now, the store is owned solely by the Kemps.

“Once we went through two years with Save-A-Lot, we thought that we could handle the task by restocking the shelves and coming back full fledged as the grocery store to assist the community,” De’Jonae told Spectrum Local News. “Nevertheless, that wasn’t the case.”

Vandergriff said the store was better when it was a Save-A-Lot.

The month after the Kemps launched their Gofundme campaign, city officials announced interest in buying the store, saying they wanted to see a different model of food distribution in the community, according to The Dallas Morning News.

During budget talks, Eric Anthony Johnson, the city’s chief of economic development, said buying the store would show residents that Dallas isn’t giving up on providing them food.

Under the original contract, Kemp’s store has to stay open for 10 years. However, the contract also allows Kemp to opt out after five years if he isn’t bringing in an average of $70,000 a week in sales.

In a 2016 column for the Morning News, Sara M. Gilbert, a food policy expert, said cities should consider other models of distribution in food deserts, such as mobil grocery stores and farmers markets.

But Atkins hasn’t lost hope in the grocery store, the purchase of which he called the “best investment ever done south of the Trinity River.” In the press release about the temporary closure, Atkins said, “I am more determined than ever to see this store succeed because lives are depending on it.”

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