A long-awaited new grocery store and farmers market in Central City is a year behind schedule. The visionary behind the project, which has received generous taxpayer support, is no longer in charge and won’t discuss his exit. And there’s still no specific opening date.
But the developer who’s opening Jack & Jake’s Public Market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard insists the project is not in jeopardy.
The fresh food retailer, which will occupy 23,000 square feet inside the former Myrtle Banks Elementary School, is intended to bring healthy food — such as fresh produce, meats, cheese and seafood — to an area that’s long been underserved by traditional food retailers.
When the project received a $1 million loan from the city in June 2014, it was projected to open that fall. Since then, the project has faced continuing delays, prompting questions from neighbors and others.
Alembic Community Development founder Benjamin Warnke, whose firm is a partner in the project, said Wednesday that the market’s founder and CEO, John Burns Jr., is no longer spearheading the effort, although he still sits on its board.
It’s unclear if the market’s split with Burns was amicable.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Burns declined to discuss the situation. “I really can’t answer any questions,” he said.
Warnke praised Burns as the market’s visionary but said he may have gotten ahead of himself by setting opening dates, only to see them pass by.
“Some of the timelines that he was looking at were more optimistic than perhaps they might have been in retrospect,” Warnke said. “There’s nothing really that is all that unexpected that perhaps extended the opening a little bit longer than he anticipated.”
Now, he said, the opening is close.
Warnke said he has taken over running the operation and plans to launch a national search for a permanent director once it’s up and running.
That’s expected to be in the fall, he said.
“It’s not the biggest building in the world, but it’s a complicated layout,” Warnke said. “It’s not surprising to me, frankly, that the timeline has drifted a bit.”
When the market does finally unlock its doors, Warnke is confident it will fill a need in the neighborhood.
“I think we’re actually going to be opening at a really good time for the business to be able to flourish from day one,” he said. “I think we’re in good shape.”
Jack & Jake’s design calls for two restaurants, a bar, an oyster bar and a coffee bar, as well as a large teaching kitchen and event spaces.
The market will have its own chef in the kitchen: Ben Thibodeaux, who formerly ran the kitchen at Tableau restaurant. At Jack & Jake’s, Thibodeaux will oversee its menus, take-home offerings and other culinary aspects of the operation.
Warnke’s firm acquired the Myrtle Banks property from the city in 2011 and pushed ahead with a $17 million renovation. The school had been closed since 2002. It was gutted by fire six years later and remained blighted until the renovation began.
The market is being paid for with a mix of public and private money, including $900,000 from the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority and a $1 million loan from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, half of which is refundable.
City leaders hailed the effort as accomplishing two big goals: providing fresh and affordable produce in an underserved area of the city, and restoring a historic building and potential commercial anchor that’s a key to the O.C. Haley neighborhood’s ongoing revitalization.
The market is slated to add 33 full-time jobs and 35 part-time jobs to the neighborhood, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office said last year.
Watching from the sideline as the market opens its doors may be a keen disappointment for Burns, who developed a similar concept in Gert Town that appeared close to opening in 2010 but fell short. That project, he said previously, ran out of cash.
But Warnke praised Burns for getting the market this far.
“John is a big-picture guy, the founder and visionary, and it’s often the case that, with the entrepreneurial or big-picture folks, that when it comes time to become operational, they’re more comfortable taking a back seat and providing guidance on the larger direction and being less involved in the day-to-day,” he said.
That day-to-day grind is likely to begin in the fall.
“We’re eager to make this a grocery store that is able to meet the needs and expectations of Central City,” Warnke said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.