Wegmans may open in county

Upscale food market considering parcel in west Columbia, sources say

March 05, 2006|BY A SUN REPORTER

Wegmans Food Markets Inc., the upscale retailer that is as much a tourist attraction as it is a grocery chain, is considering expanding into Howard County, several sources say.

A partnership that owns a key site and which hopes to lure Wegmans is involved in discussions with the company, one source says.

There are two key impediments, though, to building a store in the county, the sources say:

Finding a location that is properly zoned and large enough to satisfy the typical Wegmans, which is more than twice the size of the largest supermarkets in the area.

FOR THE RECORD - An article and headline in Sunday's Howard section of The Sun incorrectly described the location of a parcel being considered as a site for a Wegmans Food Markets store. That site is in east Columbia.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Overcoming the stern opposition that engulfed a failed attempt two years ago to attract a Wegmans to the county.

Nonetheless, sources say there are serious, behind-the-scenes efforts to bring a Wegmans here.

"They would like to be in Howard County," one source said. "I think there is a parcel to accommodate them, but there are a number of things that need to be worked out."

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, declined to say whether his office is involved in the efforts to land Wegmans.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that there are discussions," he said.

Wegmans, based in Rochester, N.Y., does not discuss expansion plans until it has committed to a site.

The company is considering a 12.5-acre parcel across from Apple Ford in west Columbia. The property is owned by Science Fiction LLC, a partnership between New York developer Timothy C. Harrison and the Antwerpen Group, sources say.

The property includes a warehouse, which would be demolished to make room for a 130,000-square-foot store, including a 15,000-square-foot mezzanine, sources say.

Jeff Metzger, publisher of the trade publication Food World and widely viewed as an industry expert, said Wegmans would like to have a store in the county, but accommodating its needs would be difficult.

"I would expect that they have a high level of interest," he said.

Geographically, Metzger said, "the spacing would be right" from its Hunt Valley unit, and "demographically, the county would certainly fill the bill."

The company's Hunt Valley location, opened five months ago, has been a "home run," Metzger said.

"Its size, variety, emphasis on perishables, food service presentation ... and high level of customer service" are winning strategies, he said.

Food World, which tracks market conditions, estimates that the Hunt Valley location is doing about $2 million in business a week.

If that trend continues, and Metzger believes it will, that would translate into more than $100 million after its first year. In comparison, Food World estimates that the average Giant Food supermarket does $26.74 million a year, and Safeway, $22 million.

"Wegmans is a juggernaut unto itself," he said.

The biggest problem, Metzger and others say, is that Wegmans requires up to three times more land than other supermarket chain stores.

Its typical store today is 140,000 square feet, compared with the 60,000 to 65,000 square feet for most other grocery stores in the Baltimore-Washington region. The property also must accommodate more parking.

"It is interested in this market, but for an operation of the size of Wegmans, the biggest problem is finding a properly zoned parcel big enough," said a county government source. "I can't think of any vacant parcels that could accommodate that."

Metzger said there have been rumors that the north Laurel area is being considered as a site. But he also said that might be no more than speculation.

An effort two years ago by a New York developer to lure Wegmans to the site across from Apple Ford failed.

The site is not zoned for a grocery store. Also, there was stiff resistance from Department of Planning and Zoning officials and Rouse Co. executives, all of whom feared a mega-Wegmans would irreparably harm the merchants in Columbia's village centers.

That issue might be mitigated if the chain chose a site outside Columbia. Further, Rouse sold the village centers and then was acquired by Chicago-based General Growth Properties Inc., which isn't perceived to have an overriding commitment to protecting the village centers in an era of big-box retailing.

That aside, Metzger said he believes the scarcity of land in the county poses a far greater hurdle. "They'd like to be here," he said, "but I'd be hesitant to say a deal is imminent."

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