Wegmans' spread in Md. greeted with pride

Plan to open 2 more stores hailed as sign of state's affluence

May 05, 2006|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Elected officials' cutting ribbons on new grocery stores is a sight more associated in recent years with inner-city neighborhoods, where previous supermarkets had closed as residents moved away.

But the reception that greeted news of new food markets in two affluent Maryland suburbs in recent days signaled a much different phenomenon.

It was a Wegmans.

While retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. have faced opposition when trying to move into some communities, the gourmet grocer Wegmans Food Markets Inc. has been openly embraced as it has ventured from its Upstate New York roots into Maryland. The Rochester, N.Y., chain, whose markets include European-style cafes, French patisseries, sushi and gourmet cheeses, has, for some officials, become a broader symbol of economic and cultural gain - a grocery version of Starbucks.

Yesterday, Prince George's County officials, along with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., announced that Wegmans will locate in a development being built at Glenarden. Anne Arundel officials announced last week the building of a 140,000-square-foot Wegmans at the Village of Waugh Chapel in Gambrills. The grocer is also said to be scouting sites in Howard County.

"What it means for Maryland is a sign we're coming of age in having these high-income people, and it's starting to be noticed," said Richard P. Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. "When you look at high-end retail throughout the state, it is now located in many areas, where it used to be in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac."

Wegmans opened its first Maryland store last fall in northern Baltimore County's Hunt Valley to crowds that waited in the pre-dawn. The grocer has been credited with helping to revitalize the former Hunt Valley Mall, once dubbed "Death Valley" mall because of its sparse shoppers.

John Wegman started the grocery as the Rochester Fruit & Vegetable Co. in 1916. The business was largely centered in Upstate New York and later spread to parts of Pennsylvania. In recent years, it began expanding into more heavily populated areas and grew to 70 stores from New York to Northern Virginia. Fortune magazine has ranked it among the "100 Best Companies to Work For."

In Prince George's, County Executive Jack Johnson and the governor have been trying for two years to convince Wegmans to move there, said Kwasi Holman, president and chief executive officer of the county Economic Development Corp.

"It's certainly one of the best grocery stores in the country," Holman said. "It also signals to other retailers that the county has the kind of population that will meet their market needs. So hopefully, it will start a series of dominoes falling which will encourage other folks to sign leases in the county."

Prince George's, which has struggled to attract upscale retail despite being one of the wealthiest African-American-majority jurisdictions in the country, had to convince Wegmans it had sufficient population to support the store, which will anchor the Woodmore Towne Center.

"The counties want Wegmans because Wegmans is a source of prestige and a source of economic impact and quality-of-life improvement," said economist Anirban Basu, chief executive officer of Sage Policy Group Inc.

"Wegmans recognizes what many of us have known, which is that Maryland is one of the nation's most affluent states, has tremendous spending power and that in past times, much of that spending power has been released in other places such as Northern Virginia or New York City," Basu said. "Many of Maryland's old wealth shops outside of Maryland to gain access to luxury goods. Wegmans is the type of retailer that really addresses a need in Maryland, which is for more upscale retail."

Two years ago, Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens began her mission to lure the grocer there after she traveled with local developers to visit her first Wegmans in Northern Virginia. She spent two years writing the company letters and talked the county up to leasing agents at a convention in Las Vegas before the store finally agreed to locate in Anne Arunedl.

Wegmans said it gets hundreds of letters from people asking it to move to their communities. A company spokesperson said the grocer looks for areas with rapid business growth, roadways that can handle its deliveries and large tracts of land to accommodate its stores. With up to 140,000 square feet, Wegmans is more than triple the size of a typical grocery store.

"There were certainly areas in Maryland where we thought there were ideal locations," said Jeanne Colleluori, a Wegmans spokeswoman.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

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