Rejected supermarket winds up as a key anchor in Hunt Valley

Proposed store that drew boos in Timonium wins star role in mall remake

April 08, 2003|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Wegmans Food Markets Inc., a Rochester, N.Y., supermarket chain that has built a loyal following with its in-store cafes, vast selection of prepared meals and hundreds of varieties of produce, will open its first Maryland store as a key anchor at the redeveloped Hunt Valley Mall, the company said yesterday.

Wegmans, a family-owned and operated grocer, plans to build a 130,000-square-foot store in northern Baltimore County on the site of the mostly vacant, enclosed mall, which developers are transforming into an upscale, Main Street-style shopping and entertainment destination.

The grocer, now in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, had withdrawn plans at the end of January to build one of its huge supermarkets in Timonium because of heavy opposition from businesses and community groups. Critics had raised concerns over increased traffic congestion and objected to a retail store on land zoned for industrial use.

After those plans fell through, Wegmans turned to the mall site, which it had initially considered, Jo Natale, a Wegmans spokeswoman, said yesterday.

"What made us look again is that a new developer was involved with a new vision for the project, which very much appealed to us," Natale said. "The town center concept very much appealed to us. It's a perfect backdrop for our store."

Erwin L. Greenberg Commercial Corp. of Owings Mills bought the struggling, 21-year- old mall in December. It plans to demolish the nearly 400,000- square-foot enclosed portion starting around July 1 and redevelop it into a 330,000-square- foot, open air "Main Street" of upscale shops and restaurants, benches, fountains and a plaza for concerts or skating - a $35 million project.

Current retailers - Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sears Roebuck and Co., Burlington Coat Factory, Dick's Sporting Goods and DSW Shoe Warehouse - are expected to remain adjacent to the new Main Street, though DSW is to move to another spot to make way for Wegmans.

The grocery store will have one entrance off Main Street and a main entrance off the front parking lot. Hoyt Cinema megaplex, currently a standalone theater at the mall, could be connected to the rest of the project via escalators that would bring shoppers up one level to a plaza with restaurant seating that would overlook Main Street.

The developer also hopes to bring in a large bookstore and three sit-down restaurants.

But before completing deals with other tenants, Greenberg Commercial had worked on lining up Wegmans, its main new anchor, said Brian J. Gibbons, Greenberg's president and chief executive officer. He said he expects Wegmans to open by late 2004 or early 2005.

"This is going to be the single best daily retail draw in metropolitan Baltimore," Gibbons said. "It's almost like going into a little village in New York where there are all these markets that are part of the store itself. We really think this will draw [shoppers]. You'll make a special trip to go to this place."

Natale, the Wegmans spokeswoman, said the store would feature a market cafe, with seating for 200, and an array of prepared food to take out or eat-in.

"When people think of prepared food, they think rotisserie chicken and macaroni salad," Natale said. "What we offer goes well beyond that," to Asian, Chinese and Thai buffets, a sub shop, and dishes such as salmon primavera and shrimp bisque.

The stores also feature up to 700 varieties of produce, bakeries with wood-fired, brick ovens, French patisseries and 400 varieties of cheese, Natale said.

"They're great stores," said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Columbia-based trade journal Food World. "You'll immediately see many points of difference from a typical" supermarket, in "the size, the number of departments and the focus on perishables and meal solutions."

Metzger predicts that the new store will generate $1 million in sales per week, well above the average $400,000 per week for a typical grocery store and that that will cut into business of surrounding grocery stores in and around the York Road corridor.

"When you take $1 million plus a week out of any given market, all the competition will feel that pinch," Metzger said.

Giant Food Inc., which has a store on York Road, closest to the Shawan Road mall, said it had no comment on Wegmans' plans.

"We just conduct our business as usual and we just don't respond to what impact the competition may have in the area," said Jamie Miller, a Giant spokesman.

In the states where it operates, Wegmans has faced growing competition not only from other grocery stores but from Wal-Mart's supercenters, which include grocery stores. As a result, Wegmans has lowered some prices on core grocery items to compete, Metzger said.

Wegmans has grown from a single store in 1916 started by the father and uncle of Chairman Robert Wegman into a 64-store chain.

The company is opening two stores this year, including one outside Philadelphia on April 27 and another in New Jersey this fall. A store is under construction in Sterling, Va., and another is planned for Fairfax, Va.

Plans for the newly named Hunt Valley Towne Centre are the latest for the mall, which has struggled through the loss in 1992 of department store anchor Macy's, increased competition from newer, bigger regional malls and various owners who proposed but never completed mall makeovers.

Wegmans had initially chosen the Timonium site because it sits in a densely populated area, Natale said. But the Hunt Valley site will be just as good a fit, she said.

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