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Battling for the niche market


Since the 1970s, two specialty natural food and produce markets have been a staple in Columbia's Wilde Lake village.

Produce Galore and David's Natural Market have expanded from modest 1,000-square- foot stores over the years by acquiring space that became available next to them. In the process, the two outlets have become Columbia landmarks.

But with residents requesting specialty food markets such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe's as part of the redevelopment of Town Center, it is unclear where a smaller, locally owned specialty food store would fit in.

Columbia's main grocery stores - Safeways, Giants or a Food Lion - are in the nine village centers. Produce Galore and David's have the competitive edge for organic produce and specialty foods in the area.

That could change in the near future. The lease for the Giant store that anchors Wilde Lake Village Center - the closest village center to Town Center - expires in a couple of years, said County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat. Kimco Realty Corp., which owns the center, and Giant would not disclose the lease details.

Ulman said that would be an ideal to time to revitalize the village center - which is the town's first shopping center and has its smallest grocery store, with 18,000 square feet of sales space - with a larger food store, such as a Harris Teeter, Safeway or another Giant. He said he has met with representatives from Whole Foods about the possibility of moving to the village center to help it remain a strong presence in the community.

"That is the kind of a tenant that is looking to be in Columbia," Ulman said. "And I think that is the kind of a tenant that would make a big difference to a village center and to our community."

Amy Hopfensperger, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, said the company does not have any publicly announced plans to open in Columbia.

A store such as Whole Foods - which bills itself the world's leading natural and organic food retailer, with more than 155 stores throughout the nation and Britain - would be redundant, said David London, who owns David's Natural Market. With his store, Produce Galore and Today's Catch seafood market in the village center, produce and organic food needs for the town are met.

"I think we kind of form what a Fresh Fields is or a Whole Foods is," London said. "If you put all three of us together, I think that's what we have."

Kent Pendleton, who with his wife, Margaret, owns Produce Galore, said the three stores create one of Columbia most diverse shopping centers. Should Whole Foods move to town, he said, he is concerned that it "would try to do a little bit of what everybody does and try to squash [smaller businesses]."

London does not believe that a Whole Foods would fit into the concept of Columbia's village centers, which were designed as one-stop shopping areas, where residents could buy groceries and alcohol, gas for their cars and drop off dry cleaning.

"The reason they formed the village centers in the beginning was so people could go and shop at different shops," London said. "I think if you get too many ... huge corporations, you lose personal service and the contact with people who are knowledgeable with the product they're selling."

Ulman said Whole Foods representatives originally expressed interest about moving into Town Center. But he said he does not want that to be a part of General Growth Properties' and the county's plans to transform the area into a bustling urban environment, focusing on building shops and homes in the 51.7-acre, crescent-shaped property next to Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Ulman said he is concerned that a large grocery store in Town Center such as Whole Foods, which typically builds 40,000- to 75,000-square-foot stores, would crush the village centers' businesses. Ulman said he would rather attract people to Wilde Lake Village Center with a specialty food store.

Dennis W. Miller, General Growth's general manager for Columbia, said the issue of a grocery store moving into Town Center needs public discussion - while many residents want such stores in Columbia, others are worried such outlets would harm the village centers.

"Whole Foods has definitely expressed an interest in the Columbia market, as well as Trader Joe's and many other gourmet grocery stores," Miller said.

But the question, Miller said, is: "Where would they go? That's the piece that's still up for debate."

Owners of David's and Produce Galore would rather they keep the market on specialty food stores in Columbia, a niche they have been carving out for years.

London's parents opened a store in Long Reach in 1974 and moved it to Wilde Lake two years later. He took over the business in 1986, and has expanded the store about seven times since then to its present size of 12,000 square feet. In addition to organic and vegetarian foods, the store also offers a cafe and an extensive vitamins section.

Produce Galore opened in 1976, with Pendleton waking before dawn to pick out fresh fruit and produce from vendors. The store has since added gourmet foods, salad and hot food bars, a deli, and other prepared foods. It expanded to 8,500 square feet about five years ago.

To compete with a store such as Whole Foods, "I suppose we would just have to stick to what we do best," Pendleton said. That means staying with their draw of prepared foods, including more than 400 soups made from scratch, five of which are offered daily.

Ulman said he does not want to facilitate anything that would hurt anyone's business, and he wants to limit any negative impact from downtown development on the village centers.

He said he fears that Wilde Lake Villgae Center could meet the fate of Oakland Mills Village Center. When it lost Metro Food Market in 2001, the shopping center struggled to attract customers to its smaller stores. The center has had a resurgence since a Food Lion opened in November.

"How do we avoid the Oakland Mills situation? That's the question," Ulman said. "And if David's or Produce Galore has a solution, I'm all ears."

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