By Meredith T. Matthews
A huge piece of local history is being resurrected in downtown’s Eastside neighborhood, just north of TIAA Bank Field. The Debs Store and the Davis Rooming House next door (now razed) were built by Edward D. Mixson in 1913. The red-brick, neighborhood grocery store on the corner of 5th Street and Florida Avenue was opened in 1921 by Lebanese immigrant Nicolas Debs and closed 90 years later in 2011. Debs Store was a part of the fabric of its community and the Debs family a staple. Nicolas’s sons, Nick and Gene, knew nearly everyone who walked into the store, and once they both passed away, the family made the difficult decision to shutter it.
With the closing of Debs Store, Eastside became, by definition, a food desert. Now the neighborhood is set to become a designated historic district, and Debs Store is set to be renovated, expanded, and reopened. This is a goal of LIFT JAX, a group of community and business leaders whose mission is to eradicate poverty and center community in Eastside, co-led by community members. The renovated store is the vision of Joe Debs, son of Nick, and a retired engineer who worked at the store up until his college years.
The Eastside community is at the heart of this project. At his father’s funeral in 2011, Debs says he was faced with the question “What’s next for the store?” He wanted the store’s generations of customers to have input, so in 2017, he invited Eastside residents to a neighborhood event held in the empty lot next door to the store. Residents shared a meal and were given the opportunity to write down and verbalize their wishes for the future of the store’s location. Debs says the most-cited answer was the need for a “fresh food grocery” and/or a “community center.”
Debs was introduced to David Garfunkel, president of LIFT JAX, two years later, and the two joined forces in a renovation effort for Debs Store. In 2020, LIFT JAX sent out a survey to 210 Eastside households asking how to prioritize the community’s needs. The results were the same as Debs’s informal poll, with some 89 percent stating that they would be “likely” or “very likely” to go to a fresh food grocery store if one opened in the neighborhood. With the addition of support and feedback from the Historic Eastside Community Development Corporation, Debs began reaching out to builders and architects. The Jacksonville City Council approved a grant for the project in February of this year, using funds earmarked for aiding the city’s food deserts, and the project picked up steam.
The plan is to nearly double the store’s size and add additional services. Goodwill Inc. is set to run the fresh food store and offer employment services, and VyStar Credit Union will provide an ATM and banking services onsite. Local architect Melody Bishop is behind the renovation design (see renderings on page 55). Debs and Garfunkel say it will incorporate as many original architectural details and materials as possible and include a “Discovery Corner,” or “Memory Corner,” with photos, equipment, and artifacts from the store’s 90-year history.
“You can’t stand on that corner five minutes without someone coming up and telling you a story about the store,” says Debs. “I just want to hurry up and get this done for the people of Eastside.” Garfunkel says they hope to break ground this summer and be open for business in summer 2023.
Learn more about LIFT JAX at liftjax.org.