Giant Food Inc. plans to open a store in Columbia, along Route 108 where a Towson developer has submitted plans to the county to raze the Palace 9 Theater. The move to Columbia 100 Office Research Park is a strategic effort on Giant's part to expand its presence in Howard County and capture sales from Safeway stores in Ellicott City and east Columbia, a company official said.
But critics say the east Columbia area is overflowing with grocery stores, and some, including merchants in Long Reach Village Center, fear that the proposed Giant would draw customers from the village center, which has only recently become fully occupied again.
"People will leave the village center and go to other [shopping centers] and not use this center for what it is planned for," said Victor Ko, who owns Richburn Liquors in Long Reach. "It will split the community and destroy these businesses" in the village center.
The grocery store, proposed for Route 108 and Centre Park Drive where the now-closed Palace 9 stands, is in the planning stages, but company officials said they expect to begin construction by winter next year and open in fall 2004.
They are planning a 55,800- square-foot store - about average size - with an additional 5,000 square feet of retail space adjacent to it. Jamie Miller, a spokesman for Giant, said the company has no specific plans for the extra space. The company has three other grocery stores in the vicinity: a 24,000- square-foot store at Wilde Lake Village Center, a 56,000-square- foot store at Dorsey's Search Village Center and a 39,000- square-foot store in Owen Brown, where Giant is spending $10 million to renovate and expand the outlet to 60,000 square feet.
County Planning and Zoning officials say Continental Realty Corp., which owns Palace 9, is moving forward with plans to raze the building and redevelop the site for use by Giant. The developer likely will have to make road improvements to accommodate an expected increase in traffic. County officials said the developer will have to conduct a parking study because the movie theater's parking needs peaked at different hours than do those of nearby retail stores.
Miller said the store is part of an aggressive growth and renovation plan the company has been working on for the past two years. He said the company chose the location to compete with the other grocers and to expand its presence in Howard County.
"A lot of what we do in this business is in relation to the competitive environment," Miller said. "We've identified a large enough consumer demand to support a new store in that area."
One Long Reach village merchant said the store could help bring some price relief to the area.
"Safeway is going to have to be a little sharper," said George Martiyan, who owns the Parcel Plus store. "Maybe it'll drive the prices down."
But what is seen as a possible glut of grocery stores is raising fears in Long Reach.
The proposed Giant would lie a little more than mile north of Long Reach Village Center, which contains a Safeway, and about two miles south of the Safeway in Long Gate Shopping Center in Ellicott City. A Food Lion store on Route 104 also is about a mile from the proposed Giant location.
Merchants in Long Reach Village Center who have watched customers leave when other shopping centers opened nearby are concerned that a new grocery store so close will again draw customers from their anchor.
Some key merchants left the shopping center a few years ago amid concerns about crime and competition from Columbia Crossing shopping center, with its collection of big-box stores. The Rouse Co., which sold controlling interest in the village centers this year to Kimco Realty Corp., had completed a multimillion-dollar renovation of Long Reach that included expansion of the Safeway. Yet Rouse had difficulty finding businesses to lease the spaces that a bank, drugstore and hair salon had left behind.
Some of the storefronts remained vacant for more than a year. The center recently became fully occupied again. Kimco leased one of the last spaces - temporarily - to a political candidate for a campaign center.
But Dicky Darrell, a retail leasing agent with Manekin LLC, said the store owners have nothing to fear. Although the new grocery store inevitably will draw some customers away, in the long run, he said, it will increase sales for both shopping areas.
"I don't think you'll have the situation where it'll do a significantly less amount of business," he said. "What also happens is, when a new store comes in, it initially cannibalizes business, but it eventually draws dollars into the market as a whole. You're going to have probably a temporary reduction at the Safeway, but I would bet within six months to a year, they'll have all that value back and continue to grow the business."
He said that although the stores are a mile or less apart, there is room for another grocery store in that area and in Columbia as a whole.
"There is a lot of population north of [Route] 108," he said. "There are a lot of people on the other side of Route 100 that this [proposed Giant] is going to be convenient for."