Northgate’s Shift

Kroger’s closure marks end of an era in Frayser

By Bill Dries

When the Kroger store opened at Northgate shopping center in Frayser 58 years ago, the store gave away a Shetland pony.

Bob and Helen Inman were the final customers at the Kroger Northgate in Frayser. The store closed this week, the last of the original tenants in the shopping center. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

When the store closed Tuesday, Feb. 18, it was the last of the original tenants in a center whose changing fortunes mirror those of the blue-collar suburb still feeling the loss of its blue-collar jobs.

The bank that later became a boxing gym is gone, as is the neighboring McDonald’s – the last in Memphis with no indoor seating – that moved to the other side of Thomas. And so is the Zayre’s, which went out of business when the national chain did.

The basement-level bowling alley is closed, as is the movie theater also in the back of the center.

And a fire dramatically pared the south end of the original shopping center framework.

Late last year, the Achievement School District opened an alternative school run by Pathways in Education for over-age students in grades seven to 12.

A police car siren yelped to clear three cars from the fire lane by the Kroger last week. Several dozen cars in the parking lot all appeared to belong to customers in the store, which was advertising it was having an “inventory reduction sale” and would close Tuesday at 6 p.m.

The shopping center, developed by the Belz family and built by Belz’s Commercial & Industrial Construction Co., had at least two supermarkets when it opened.

The competing National Food Store didn’t last long after it was heavily damaged in a February 1956 explosion. Fire investigators determined it was caused by three to four sticks of dynamite tied together and thrown on the roof one evening after the businesses were closed.

Until Tuesday, Kroger had endured in what was once the second-largest shopping center in the city after Poplar Plaza.

Kroger has another location at Frayser Boulevard and Rangeline Road in eastern Frayser. The newer store moved to the northwest corner of the intersection on what had been the site of a J.B. Hunter department store from the northeast corner,

Kroger is no small player in the Frayser economy. It and Walgreens stores are the largest employers of Frayser residents within the community, according to Eric Robertson of Community LIFT, the city-county agency working with Frayser leaders to plan for future economic development.

“Many people will tell you in Frayser that International Harvester and Firestone – those were big employers,” he said. “And when those closed, that left that community – which is really a bedroom community – in terms of people driving out for work.”

ASD officials estimate 20 percent of Frayser’s school-age population attend schools outside Frayser.

Northgate is less than a mile from the site of the old International Harvester plant and felt the immediate impact of its closure in the 1980s, as did the surrounding businesses built on trade from the plant workers as well as the proximity to Northgate.

“If Frayser was a town, it would be the 12th biggest town in Tennessee. Because of its suburban style, there’s really no central gathering place.”

–Steve Lockwood
Director, Frayser Community Development Corp. 

For future plans, Robertson says the question is whether Frayser will remain a bedroom community or one that again mixes workplaces with residential development.

“We don’t have a crossroads. We don’t have a town center,” said Steve Lockwood, director of the Frayser Community Development Corp. “We don’t have a city hall. If Frayser was a town, it would be the 12th biggest town in Tennessee. Because of its suburban style, there’s really no central gathering place, no real communications hub – much less transportation hub.”

Housing in Frayser is slowly improving – 1,500 empty and vacant homes, down from 1,800, Lockwood said.

“Our housing prices are rising after bottoming out a few years ago at an average sale price of $17,000,” Lockwood noted. “It’s up to $31,000. That’s still pretty low. But that’s an incredible rebound. I think there’s a lot of room for optimism there.”

Creating new businesses in the area comes with unique challenges compared to other areas where the focus might be on storefronts. That’s because of what’s left of the infrastructure from those old industrial uses as well as big-box retail sites, including the old Treasury Department store on Hollywood Street by Interstate 240.

Lockwood notes that the Treasury site has interstate access, with 95,000 cars a day going by.

“That’s not mom-and-pop stuff. It’s very difficult for us to go out and negotiate to find an investor to come into this multimillion-dollar site,” he added. “That’s the kind of place that we need the attention and help from the city administration, EDGE, LIFT, plenty of other entities. We don’t quite have the clout, and we don’t play at that level. Some of those investors may not come only from Chattanooga but from Japan.”