THE COLOR OF MONEY

A St. Louis American columnist wonders whether Sterling Moody's business is black enough

When Sterling Moody, owner/operator of two supermarkets in town, is asked whether he'd seen what was printed about him in the St. Louis American last week, he laughs.

"The Enquirer, you mean?" is how Moody responds to coverage of his troubles in the "Political Eye" column, written by "Mark Wilson." That byline is a good contender for the column's own 1999 "Whatever It Is, It Ain't Award," because most folks assume that the routinely pungent and informative column is written by none other than a former comptroller for the city who suffered a premature end to his political career. Yes, Virvus Jones is still on the scene.

Basically, the column questions whether Moody is posing as a "black- owned" grocer, alleging that although Moody put his life savings of $30,000 in the store, most of the money came from "non-black investors." According to the piece, Moody has a "withholding tax liability of more than $800,000," and any request for $50,000 in block-grant money from each African-American alderman ought to be prefaced by an "audited full disclosure of Sterling's finances."

For his part, Moody denies that his tax liability is that large and differentiates between the grocery business and the real-estate business. He says he owns "100 percent" of the grocery business at his two stores, one on North Broadway in Baden and the other on South Grand across from Tower Grove Park, but that the real-estate business that owns the land and the buildings has other investors.

As for the charge that his business isn't black enough, Moody seems mystified. "I never made any secret that I had partners. I don't know why they decided it's such a big deal now," he says, noting that his main partner is Steve Abdul-Jabbar.

Moody did meet with churches to "rededicate the community back to the grocery store" and did talk to aldermen; he doesn't deny that. But with the eventual likelihood of Schnucks' selling out to a national chain -- let's face it: if Mercantile and Grandpa's do it, why not Schnucks? -- the survival of a local independent grocer has beneficial side effects "It's a neighborhood situation," says Moody. "It's not a black thing."

One problem at the South Grand store is the lack of a liquor license. Neighbors were concerned about allowing the "single serve," so Moody has agreed to ban the sale of half-pints of liquor and 24-ouncers of beer.

Moody claims the main challenge is the fact that his company is less than a year old and the store on South Grand is less than four months old: "People have to take that and translate it into what it's like being a kid at 11 months. People carry you around and babysit you. We're still a baby."

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