A grocery store could fill the former Uptons building in Columbia, becoming the town's only supermarket outside a village center and breathing new life into Dobbin Center.
The space, which could be occupied in as few as three to four months, will "mostly likely" house a grocery store, said Cole Schnorf, senior vice president of development for Manekin Corp., which has the leasing rights to the building.
Schnorf said Manekin is talking with two grocery companies about the space, although he declined to disclose which chains. Schnorf said he hopes that an agreement will be reached with a tenant within the next 30 days.
If a grocery store does occupy the space, it would mean another option for shoppers and a second anchor for Dobbin Center, which has a Kmart.
Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president of Rouse Co., said that if a grocery store comes to Dobbin Center, the impact would depend on the type of supermarket.
Although it would be the only grocery store outside a village center (not including warehouse and specialty stores), it would not be the first, and it would not be the only one competing in the Columbia area: Memco, the store that once occupied the space in Dobbin Center where Kmart stands, had a grocery store inside, Scavo said. Shoppers can choose from several supermarkets surrounding Columbia in addition to those in their village centers, but Scavo said the region has enough households to support them. The village centers, he said, are doing fine, and filling the former Uptons building will help Dobbin Center.
"By having another anchor there," he said, "that will be very substantive for the center."
Businesses' mixed reactions
The former Uptons building initially housed a Hechinger in 1983. Uptons moved into the building in 1993 and closed last year.
Charles Sudduth, replenishment manager for Kmart in Dobbin Center, is looking forward to a new store in that space. "We want to see Dobbin Center full again," he said.
But business owners in nearby village centers have mixed reactions to the possibility of a grocery store in Dobbin Center.
Some, such as Manoj Kapur, say the change probably won't affect them.
Kapur owns Vennari's Pizza and Subs in Oakland Mills Village Center, which was renovated in 1997 to include a Metro Food Market. Though he estimates that about half his customers pick up a pizza after grocery shopping, he isn't worried. "It won't hurt us," he said.
Craig Muckle, public affairs manager for Safeway's eastern division, said his company, which has a store in the Long Reach Village Center, isn't worried. "We think we'll be able to do just fine, regardless of who's there," he said.
And David Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board, said he's cautiously optimistic. Although another grocery store would inevitably draw some business away from the center, many devoted customers would support their village centers, he said.
"What we've seen is a lot of people have become brand loyal and tend to shop regularly in one place or another," Hatch said, "and I think that's true in the Metro in our village."
One customer who proves his theory is Curtis Croley.
Croley, who lives in Oakland Mills, shops for groceries three to four times a week, splitting trips between the Oakland Mills Metro and the Giant in the Village of Dorsey's Search. He would shop at a grocery store in Dobbin Center only if it were a Fresh Fields supermarket, he said, but even then would shop there only once a week.
"I want to support my village center," Crowley said.
'The pie is only so big'
Schnorf said a grocery store in Dobbin Center would need a special draw - be it cheaper products or a bigger, fancier store - to pull customers away from their homes and village centers. But off Route 175, it would be convenient for commuters. "I think a grocery store would help the shopping center, and it would be the most visible shopping center in Columbia," Schnorf said.
Others , such as Henry F. Dagenais, chairman of the Long Reach Village Board, said a new grocery store undoubtedly would affect the village center.
"We haven't heard anything from the other merchants in the village center, but I'm sure they're probably watching this very closely," he said. "Already we've got two or three empty storefronts that we'd like to see full."
Ken Keepers, owner of Oakland Mills Liquors in the Oakland Mills Village Center, said Dobbin Center is no place for a grocery store. "It'll pull business away from everybody," he said, "I don't know how much, but the pie is only so big."
Keepers said he isn't worried for his business, because there's no liquor store at Dobbin Center, but he is worried for Columbia.
"This was supposed to be a city that was different and had a concept," he said. "The Columbia concept, which seems to be not a concept anymore, would be to have the grocery stores in the village centers."