In a bid to win public support for a new Wegmans in Columbia, company officials have been meeting with residents and sharing more details about the proposed two-story food palace.
The grocer is preparing for a hearing Thursday night before the Howard County Planning Board. For the project to proceed, officials must amend a zoning plan that prohibits the business from building on the industrial-zoned property at Snowden River Parkway and McGaw Road.
Many people say they are excited about the prospect of a Wegmans store in the county, but some Columbia residents worry that the superstore would threaten smaller village shopping centers that help foster a sense of community in their neighborhoods.
The proposed 160,000-square-foot Wegmans supermarket would be four times the size of the Food Lion in Oakland Mills Village Center, which is 3 1/2 miles away, close enough to lure Food Lion shoppers.
Wegmans stores typically draw half of their customers from within a 5-mile radius, according to corporate representatives. Traditional grocers get 75 percent of their business from within a 3-mile radius.
"I've heard from residents who are on both sides of the equation," said Bill Woodcock, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board.
Some of the opposition is adamant.
An anonymous party papered a few East Columbia villages with fliers asking residents to speak out about the store's threat to local merchants and the increased traffic it would bring.
"Help us tell our Village Board officials to keep Columbia the community as it was intended ... as Rouse intended!" read a paper that encouraged residents to attend a meeting at the Oakland Mills Village Center where the Wegmans was to be discussed.
Hoping to cure social ills and urban sprawl, James Rouse developed Columbia around nine village centers and a town center meant to promote neighborhood interaction. But the village shopping centers are aging and aren't large enough for a store such as Wegmans.
Despite the fliers, community attendance at the village meetings has been sparse. Besides the village board members, 10 residents attended a Tuesday night meeting in Oakland Mills. Even fewer attended earlier meetings in Owen Brown and Long Reach. A final meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Kings Contrivance.
At the Oakland Mills briefing, one resident said the fliers prompted him to attend to support the store.
"I can't wait to see you guys come to Columbia so I can shop there," said Joel B. Ballard, a 15-year resident of the Thunder Hill neighborhood.
The family-owned Wegmans chain has donated more than $63 million in scholarships to its employees and also gives to the communities near its stores. Fortune magazine named it the third-best company to work for this year, and BusinessWeek ranked it fifth among companies in customer service in February.
The chain, based in Rochester, N.Y., hears from about 4,500 people annually asking it to open supermarkets where they live.
Howard County has been the most requested spot for a new store. Since opening its first Maryland supermarket in October 2005, Wegmans has received 151 requests to build a store in Howard.
The corporation has been looking at the proposed location since 2000. Even with a quick approval process, it could not open a store before mid-2009.
A local lawyer representing Wegmans said he hopes to get county approval for the store by early fall.
Not everyone was worried about the proposed store.
The store "sounds wonderful, and everybody was happy," said Rita Seidelman, assistant administrator of the Long Reach Community Association, referring to the meeting with Wegmans officials in Long Reach.
Reactions were similar in Owen Brown.
"All of the calls that I received were that they wanted Wegmans, that they felt that the company would be welcome," said Pearl Atkinson-Stewart, a Columbia Association Board member.
But at Oakland Mills, where residents went without a grocery store for a couple of years after the Metro supermarket closed, a few questions alluded during a meeting with Wegmans representatives to the concerns expressed in the flier.
"You are in the village of Oakland Mills. That is a great concern. What has been your experience when you have moved a Wegmans into an area with regard to other stores in the area?" said Barbara Russell, the Oakland Mills Columbia Council representative.
A Wegmans representative said the competition would be good for local grocers.
"We are going to impact a number of stores. I can't say that we won't," said Paul D. Gilbert, director of real estate at Wegmans Food Markets Inc. "In most cases [other stores] get better because they have to."
The company said it would pay for road changes to accommodate increased traffic at the store's sole customer entrance, at McGaw Road and Stanford Boulevard.