Valu Food announced yesterday that it will close its store in Columbia's Harper's Choice Village Center in less than three weeks after failing to agree on renewing its lease with the Rouse Co.
Rouse officials said yesterday that they were negotiating with several grocers but that they didn't know when they would have a replacement for Valu Food. The store's last day will be Dec. 16.
"They provided an environment that made it impossible for us to stay," Louis Denrich, Valu Food president, said yesterday of the Rouse Co. "We just can't operate in a market where we lose money. We're a low-cost operator. We're not a Gucci's store."
Yesterday's announcement was the latest in a series of blows to the neighborhood shopping center, which has lost a High's Dairy Store, a Little Caesar's Pizza, Subway Sandwiches and other stores over the past few years. Some residents say the center has declined because it has become outdated and unsafe.
Although there are some recent signs of improvement at the troubled village center -- with a Dunkin' Donuts outlet and Papa John's Pizza soon to open there -- residents are upset by Valu Food's closing because the community no longer has a nearby grocery or convenience store. Many senior citizens and other residents who don't have transportation walk to the store, which has been the center's anchor for 10 years.
"I'm concerned about where residents are going to buy milk and eggs," said Wendy Tzuker, village manager of the Harper's Choice Community Association.
Ms. Tzuker said she heard complaints about the store's closing all day yesterday.
She said there have been rumors of a community meeting tonight to talk about how residents should respond to the loss of their grocery store. "There is no meeting," she said. "There's really nothing the village association can do about it, anyway."
Some residents just wanted an opportunity to vent.
"I think it stinks," Harper's Choice resident William McCauley said of the store's closing. "We need this store here."
Officials at Valu Food said they didn't want to leave Harper's Choice but that they needed more space to remain competitive with other Columbia grocers. With Valu Food's lease formally ending Jan. 31, the company's officials were negotiating a lease extension with the Rouse Co. that would have included expanding the store.
The negotiations ran into trouble when when the Rouse Co. sought to increase Valu Food's rent from about $10 a square foot to about $14 a square foot, Mr. Denrich, Valu Food's head, said. He also said the Rouse Co. wanted to require Valu Food to pay for its own renovations.
Cathy Lickteig, a spokeswoman for the Rouse Co., would not discuss Rouse's leasing practices yesterday, but she described the decision by Valu Food to close the store as "mutually agreed upon."
Rouse's focus now, she said, is on finding a new anchor for the Harper's Choice village.
"We're in negotiations for several different options -- several different anchor grocery stores -- for that site," Ms. Lickteig said. "I just don't know when that will happen. It's much more difficult these days than it has been in the past."
Ms. Lickteig would not identify the grocery chains the Rouse Co. is talking to, but Rouse officials confirmed this month that upscale Fresh Fields Markets was among them.
Fresh Fields officials in Rockville declined to comment yesterday on whether they are considering opening a store in Harper's Choice.
These negotiations have brought minimal comfort to Harper's Choice residents who still are concerned about stores leaving their village center.
"The whole village center is emptying out, and I don't understand why," said village resident Charlie Boarman. "People really don't like this."
In addition to High's, Subway and Little Caesar's, the center also has lost a seafood market, a dry cleaner and an Italian restaurant over the past few years.
"When a company has a monopoly, I believe they have a responsibility to create a fair business atmosphere for the small business owner but they're just going for the bucks now," said William Miller, owner of Today's Catch, the seafood market that left Harper's Choice for the Wilde Lake Village Center.
Mr. Miller said he also sees small business owners at the Wilde Lake center struggling to make it. "Most of the tenants have just thrown in the towel," he said.
Valu Food will maintain its stores in east Columbia's Kings Contrivance village and in Ellicott City. As part of the Harper's Choice store closing, Valu Food will offer 10 percent off all merchandise starting tomorrow.