It may be only one block long, but Pearne Street—located in Binghamton's North Side—offers a crash course in the socioeconomic challenges facing the area. The crumbling Victorian homes, apartment buildings in disrepair, and trash-strewn lots give way to Binghamton Plaza, where one of the neighborhood's two grocery stores used to stand. Now the plaza is almost empty except for a Kmart, and there's nowhere to buy fresh food for more than a mile in each direction. A dispiriting sight, to say the least—unless you're accompanied by City Councilwoman Lea Webb. The first African-American to hold office in Broome County, Webb knows how to look past the problems to see the potential. She points out municipal notices posted on the derelict houses: Thanks to her efforts, the city will be addressing these eyesores. That vacant lot? It's slated to become a community garden. And the abandoned McDonald's in the plaza? This is her biggest coup yet. The structure—empty for a decade and surrounded by cracked asphalt—will soon be torn down to make way for the neighborhood's first grocery store in 15 years.
A lifelong resident of the city, Webb understands firsthand the frustrations of having to take a taxi or public transportation to buy fresh food. But it was in 2006 at a community meeting that a warm, intense woman named Mrs. Marshall—affectionately known in the neighborhood as Grandma—stood up and said something that galvanized her: "She told me she didn't want to see any more old women struggling to get off the bus with their groceries," Webb says. That was the moment Webb put the cause at the top of her to-do list.
At first she made only stuttering progress as she waded through miles of bureaucratic red tape, while organizing a weekly farmers' market as a stopgap solution. But as the months wore on, Webb grew discouraged. How would she obtain a site, funding, approval from the city—or even advice? Despite her loyal supporters and iron will, the project stalled.
Then she won a spot at Women Rule! and met Libby Cook, president of Philanthropiece (a foundation that supports local service projects) and cofounder of Wild Oats Markets, the second largest natural foods chain in North America. Cook, who counseled some of the participants at the conference, offered Webb guidance for months afterward. Webb also took home a valuable lesson from Marie Wilson: "She said, 'Bring people into your project who have something to gain from its success,'" Webb recalls. "It was so simple—and so smart."
Once home, she picked up the phone. It wasn't hard to find people who would benefit from the grocery project. "It meant jobs at the store, and jobs for those constructing it. It meant healthier residents. It meant other stores being willing to develop nearby. It meant money staying right here in this neighborhood," says Webb. She called Binghamton University professors, Broome County officials, community groups, local charities, the mayor, and a state assemblyperson. Her outreach efforts eventually caught the attention of New York state senator Malcolm Smith. "Government, community, church, the private sector—Lea's got them all behind her," he says. "That's not easy to do. There's always one missing." Impressed by her crusade, Smith pledged $150,000 of state money toward the old McDonald's demolition and the clearing of the site.
Finally, by 2008, the whole thing came together. With input from one of Cook's contacts, Webb chose a vendor—the Save-a-Lot grocery chain, which agreed to meet all of Webb's criteria (they must hire locally, pay at least a few dollars above minimum wage, provide employee benefits, and address the area's ethnically diverse food needs). With environmental inspections under way, the store is expected to open in spring 2010. "At the groundbreaking," Webb says, "I'm going to have tears in my eyes."