What happens at Abrams and Gaston could influence the future of Lakewood

This year, when you do your Thanksgiving shopping at the Lakewood Minyard’s, pay close attention. It might well be the last time you’ll be able to do it. And, while you’re pondering that, you should get ready for the next big real estate battle in the neighborhood. What happens to that land if Minyard’s goes?

There’s nothing definite yet, but there are a lot of signs pointing to the end of a local tradition. The company that bought Minyard’s from the Minyard family at the end of 2004 has already announced that they’re going to switch the chain’s focus from general grocery to ethnic, concentrating on their Hispanic-themed Carnival brand.

Plus, the little things are starting to add up. The store is much more cluttered than it used to be, with free-standing displays piled high with merchandise where no free-standing displays used to be. This is not the sort of thing you see in Tom Thumb or Kroger, but the sort of thing you see in chains that target a less affluent market than Lakewood. In addition, there seem to be fewer employees, and it seems to take longer to get the shelves stocked and to go through the checkout lines. All of these things, say the grocery experts I’ve talked to, are not good signs.

I wanted to ask Minyard’s about the store’s future, but Poul Heilmann, the chain’s senior vice president of marketing and strategic planning, told me in an e-mail that Minyard’s doesn’t comment on “specific future plans or on-going operations.” However, a Minyard’s executive named Mike Byars did e-mail City Councilman Gary Griffith, whose district includes the store, and said it won’t be converted to a Carnival. Byar also had some boilerplate about the store being important to the company and hints at a renovation, but neither e-mail offers a whole lot to reassure those of us who like to shop there.

By now, everyone who doesn’t shop at Minyard’s must be wondering why they should care. Would that it were that easy. That’s because, if and when the Minyard’s goes, there’s going to be a political fight over the land that’s going to make the Emerald Isle high-rise fracas look like a day at the lake. In today’s real estate market, the Minyard’s parcel – 15 minutes from downtown, 10 minutes from White Rock Lake, in the heart of one of the best neighborhoods in the city – is priceless. If someone is building $300,000 town homes at Live Oak and Fitzhugh, think how much they could get for them at Abrams and Gaston.

Which raises the question of whether we want a 25-story high-rise condo tower there, given the possible traffic woes and any aesthetic considerations. Talk about a mess. But, some of you may be asking, why can’t another grocery chain go in there? Again, would that it were so easy. The site is probably too small for one of the major chains, or even HEB (which is rumored to be looking for locations in Dallas). It’s probably the right size for a Whole Foods, but would that company want to move from Greenville Avenue? And – shudder – it’s also the right size for a Wal-Mart neighborhood grocery, the thought of which probably just made some readers clutch their heart and shout, “This is the big one.”

So, let’s hope Minyard’s figures out what to do (which should include a serious “let’s spend enough money” renovation to enable the Lakewood store to compete with the national chains), and that it does it well. Otherwise, we’re going to have two difficult decisions to make – and we’ll lose an old pal in the process.

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