AUBURN — The city’s pilot program to encourage and support the growth of neighborhood markets has awarded grants totaling $68,400 to three local businesses and is working with two more to award the remaining $80,346 in the coming weeks.

The program earmarks $150,000 from the American Rescue Plan for five grants of up to $35,000 each to expand or start neighborhood stores that generate most of their revenue from the sale of food and groceries.

Mayor Jason Levesque said there are three goals for the program: access to food in a walkable community, increase the number of entrepreneurs in the city and become an outlet for local farms.

Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce at 966 Minot Ave. was awarded the full $35,000. Expansion of the market is underway and owner Matt Manson said it will nearly double to allow more refrigeration and shelving as they expand product lines, with a continued emphasis on Maine products. The extra space will also help as produce starts to come in during the summer from its 30-acre farm.

Clockwise from top left: Wheeler’s Market, Gowell’s Variety, J&H Variety and Blackie’s Farm Fresh Produce. Staff and submitted photos

Wheeler’s Market at 107 Main St. was granted $15,800 and owner Katie Cote said in March that she has a long list of projects. She said she’d like to offer more prepared food for takeout, such as taco wraps, chili on the weekends and lasagna hot or cold.

J&H Variety at 539 Washington St. N was granted $17,600 to buy a refrigerated unit, a freezer, hood for the commercial kitchen and stock. The owners have been slowly working on renovating the store as they prepare to open in early June. Owner Hannah Olcott plans to have subs and other cold food in the merchandiser refrigerator and a full kitchen. She also plans to have fresh produce in the front of the store.

Zach Maher, deputy director of Auburn’s Business & Community Development Department, said they are working with Gowell’s Variety at 121 Hampshire St. and Roy’s Foodland at 70 Broad St., which have a few more weeks to submit their plans to the city. Maher said they will accept applications until funds are exhausted, or June 1, whichever comes first.

While the city refers to the awards as grants, recipients must sign an agreement with the city and meet all its requirements, otherwise the money must be repaid.

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