The excitement Mary Tomasetti felt when she heard that a Harris Teeter store was coming to the Kings Contrivance Village Center had faded over the months as she waited for demolition to begin on the vacant buildings where the upscale supermarket would be built.
"It has taken so long," said Tomasetti, 84, who lives nearby. "I really began to give up. I didn't know if it was going to come here anymore."
Tomasetti's worries were put to rest as the arm of a backhoe began clawing away yesterday morning at the bricks, aluminum siding and roof of the vacant building that formerly housed a Safeway grocery store.
After months of delays, Howard County officials, village center merchants and Columbia residents celebrated the start of the project to tear down the more-than-40,000-square-foot former supermarket and an adjacent vacant building that once housed a Friendly's restaurant.
The demolition will pave the way for Maryland's second Harris Teeter store. The North Carolina-based supermarket chain is expected to open it by late spring 2008, county officials said yesterday. Harris Teeter opened a store in Montgomery County last year.
"I know it has been very frustrating to see this building sitting there with all the fencing around it," County Executive Ken Ulman said before he took a few ceremonial swings at it with a sledgehammer. "I know a lot of the merchants are frustrated and I would be frustrated ... too, but this is a start of uplifting this village center."
The beige and brown building has sat vacant since the Safeway closed its doors in June, after ending a lease with Kimco, a New Hyde Park, N.Y., company that owns the village center.
In September, Kevin Allen, director of retail and office properties for Kimco, said demolition would begin in December. But the timetable was delayed as the necessary permits and site plans were reviewed.
Since the Safeway closed, merchants said the village center has seen a major drop in customer traffic. They said they depend on an anchor like a supermarket to lure people to their businesses.
Bill Harrison, owner of Kings Contrivance Liquor and Smoke Shop, said he has seen a drop of about 100 customers a day since the Safeway closed.
"We are surviving and are very optimistic that a Harris Teeter will soon be here," Harrison said.
Harrison said he is constantly questioned by customers about the fate of the supermarket.
"Customers are a little bit frustrated, and just about every customer is coming in and asking, `When is the Harris Teeter coming in?'"
Kimco officials have said they have tried to boost traffic in the village center through advertising on television and otherwise, in addition to working with the center's CVS drugstore to expand its food selection to include eggs, bread and other necessities.
But, merchants said, the only solution is another supermarket.
At Trattoria E Pizzeria de Enrico, the lunch and dinner crowds have tapered off since the Safeway's closing.
"It's kind of dead, so we are hoping the supermarket gets here because we don't know what we're going to do," said Roberto Della Ragione, manager at the restaurant. "When they had the Safeway there, a lot of people came in here. I don't know why they closed it."
Residents had been lamenting the Safeway's lack of selection and its dated equipment for years. Safeway took over the building in 1999 when Valu Food went bankrupt and closed.
County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat who represents Kings Contrivance, said it took a lot of work during a recent meeting with officials from Harris Teeter, Kimco and other involved parties to clear the way for the demolition to begin.
"It was a matter of getting all those parties together, and there were some points when we were going back and forth, so we sat down one Friday to talk about it," Terrasa said.
For Tomasetti, the opening of the Harris Teeter next year will mean that she no longer must drive to the Giant supermarket in nearby Owen Brown Village Center to shop for groceries.
"I don't want to go too far," she said. "I miss not having a supermarket here."