Government-as-grocer & -barkeep?

Government-as-grocer & -barkeep?

The operative phrase in the gushing reportage that government has selected a new grocer to take over the space of a prior (and heavily subsidized) failed government-selected grocer in Pittsburgh’s Hill District is this:

“The URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) said it will enter into lease negotiations with Salem’s Market & Grill … ,” the Tribune-Review reported.


Does this mean there will be additional public subsidies for yet another grocer in the latest attempt to command the marketplace – a command that very marketplace has rejected now for 30 or so years?

The hubris of this ongoing exercise in “government-as-grocer” is repeated anew by URA Deputy Executive Director Diamonte Walker:

“The URA purchased the Centre Heldman Plaza” – where a failed Shop ‘n Save grocery store was chosen by a soon-to-fail and propped-up nonprofit group – “to ensure there is a transparent conversation about which grocery store would best fit the needs of the Hill District community,” he said in a news release from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s office.

By the way, the latest government-chosen “Grocer for the Hill” is a very respected operation with a 40-year history in the city’s Strip District. If it truly sees an opportunity to risk its own money to make a profit in a new location, that’s a quite economically sound and a wonderful thing.

But there should be no public money in this deal. If there is, it’s a very sound indication that the marketplace – the free and unsubsidized marketplace – will support Salem’s Market & Grill as little as it did the failed Shop ‘n Save.

Speaking of government subsidies, the same Pittsburgh URA says it has closed on a $500,000 loan to help bring back live jazz music to the building that once housed the iconic James Street Tavern and, later, the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy.

The city defends the public subsidy by noting how the building’s new owner – who plans to once again feature jazz at the site – is investing more than $5 million.

The loan will help close “funding gaps stemming from the pandemic,” another mayoral news release says.

But, again, it is not the role of the public to subsidize such efforts, be it an outright grant or a government-backed loan.

Indeed, jazz is a wonderful musical genre. And neighborhood watering holes are just fine. But it should be up to the owner of the revitalized tavern, and the patrons he can attract to imbibe in jazz, to pay for his project – not taxpayers.

Now, briefly back to that media coverage of the new grocery deal.

Among the major Pittsburgh media outlets, there was no mention of why the old, subsidized Shop ‘n Save failed – there’s an important economics tutorial in that – and no questioning if there are subsidies for the new grocery store.

If there’s to be an honest assessment of whether proposed public policies are good or bad, that’s simply unacceptable. 

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (