April 21, 2024
Healthy return

When Debs Store closed 12 years ago, it created a food desert in the Eastside neighborhood. Tice and Williams are working with the founders' grandson to renovate the store and reopen it.

Photo: Jon M. Fletcher

Healthy Return

Brothers Nicholas (left) and Eugene Debs and their parents operated Debs Store for 90 years. Says the founders' grandson" "We'll end up finding many individuals who feel their lives were enriched on this corner."

Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Debs

Health Care Landscape

Healthy Return on Investment

Florida Blue's revival of Debs Store in East Jacksonville comes down to sound math.

Laura Cassels | 4/1/2023

When store owner Eugene Debs died in 2006, patrons of the corner grocery his family operated in downtown Jacksonville for 90 years lined the streets for his funeral cortege. They did the same for his brother, Nicholas Debs, the last operator of the store, when he died five years later.

The store meant that much to the working-class residents of East Jacksonville, which once was home to composer James Weldon Johnson, acclaimed humanitarian Eartha M.M. White, national civil rights and labor leader A. Philip Randolph and NFL hall of famer and Olympian Bob “Bullet” Hayes. Ray Charles, Zora Neale Hurston and Hank Aaron also are among the cultural icons who once lived and played there.

Lebanese immigrant residents Nicolas and Rosa Debs also were standouts, running Debs Store at Fifth and Florida in the Eastside neighborhood since 1921 to supply fresh produce and meat and household goods from hankies to kerosene. The store also traded in community news and gossip. When Debs Store closed, the community became a food desert, an area where healthy, affordable food is not readily available within walking distance and where many residents lack transportation.

Now, after 12 years of sitting idle, Debs is coming back to life.

“I can’t wait for it to reopen,” says the founders’ grandson Joseph Debs, who grew up in the area but left to pursue his education and become a civil engineer. “We’ll end up finding many individuals who feel their lives were enriched on this corner.” Like his father, Nick, and uncle, Eugene, who ran the store well into their 70s, Joe Debs and his sisters grew up helping out there and making deliveries by bicycle or on foot. He cherishes relics from the store, including handwritten ledgers of accounts bearing the names of Eastside customers dating to the 1940s.

“The oldest ones were physically unable to come to the store, so they sent their lists, and we’d deliver,” Debs recalls. “There were mostly working families, and they would come in to cash their paychecks and pay their bills. They were regulars and kept accounts. Young kids would bring notes from their parents to pick up things or would want things themselves. For younger generations, the store gave some of them their first jobs. A lady on the corner across from the store, when she got her first job and first paycheck, she wanted to cash her check at Debs.”

The 110-year-old brick Debs Store building once sported a second-story balcony and a mural advertising Coca- Cola. Renovations are underway to restore the original building and double its size, creating a non-profit grocery store stocked with fresh food on the ground floor, a Goodwill GoodCareers center and a VyStar Credit Union office upstairs.

“We’re going to be assisting residents to be positioned for success — the whole person, not just their nutritional needs but also what they need to thrive in the neighborhood,” says Debs, president of Debs Store LLC. “My journey was to ensure that current and future residents were provided opportunities to advance in a healthy atmosphere in Eastside and not have to move away. What has evolved is phenomenal.”

Kelli Tice, who is spearheading the anti-poverty programs launched by Florida Blue and its parent company, GuideWell, wants to see Eastside look more like it did in decades past, when neighborhood life was supportive, but now updated with modern amenities that raise the quality of life. Her grandfather’s neighborhood in nearby New Town comes to mind.

Tice says the math works when measuring return on investments such as restoring Debs Store. Treating disease is expensive. Preventing it by clearing away obstacles such as food deserts and inferior housing is far more cost-effective.

“The corner store, the neighbors on the front stoop, all of whom knew my granddad and who watched over me and my cousin when we walked to the store to get whatever my grandmother and grandfather sent us to go get. That feel really is the thing that connects people, and that’s what people are seeking,” Tice says. “That’s what it’s supposed to look like.”

Tags: Healthcare, Insurance, Feature, Health Care Landscape

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