Wegmans on way

The Baltimore Sun

Wegmans Food Markets Inc. plans to bring one of its large supermarkets with gourmet offerings such as sushi, European-style cafes and patisseries to Abingdon, a move expected to radically alter Harford County's food retail landscape.

The retailer expects soon to sign a lease to anchor a planned 350,000-square-foot, mixed-use center at Emmorton and Woodsdale roads just north of Interstate 95, a Wegmans spokeswoman said yesterday.

The store, still to be designed, could be in the range of 120,000 to 140,000 square feet and employ as many as 600 people, Jo Natale said. The grocer now has one Maryland store, in Hunt Valley, that is of similar size, at 140,000 square feet.

Wegmans is eyeing Harford as some rivals are feeling the pinch of the recession. Super Fresh, owned by the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Inc., is closing a 40-year-old, underperforming supermarket, formerly called A&P;, on West Baltimore Pike on Feb. 23, The Aegis reported Friday. A&P; officials did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.

Longtime Harford County retailer Klein's Family Markets, which got its start as a general store in Fallston in 1925, is in the midst of joining a large, retailer-owned cooperative to better compete with larger chains. Klein's said in October that it is joining the Wakefern Food Corp. cooperative, which owns the ShopRite banner. Klein's seven stores will be known as Klein's ShopRite.

Giant Food LLC, which has a supermarket in Abingdon, and Safeway, Weis Markets and Mars Super Markets are among the chains that have a Harford presence.

The Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, known to stress service and outsell its competitors in volume per unit, has managed to maintain its measured pace of growth despite the economic slowdown. The retailer builds two to three new stores each year, Natale said.

"Fortunately, we're able to continue that pace," Natale said. "We have wanted more stores in Maryland, but we take our time looking for the right site."

David J. Livingston, a grocery analyst and managing partner for Wisconsin-based DJL Research, said the privately owned Wegmans is benefiting from having resisted expanding too fast and taking on too much debt.

"They don't take expansion lightly," Livingston said. "They do it methodically. They don't build stores for the sake of building stores. They definitely improve the shopping experience for consumers."

In selecting the Harford County site, the chain said it took into account the area's expected influx of residents who will work at or near Aberdeen Proving Ground, which is expected to get 8,200 new jobs through federal base realignment and closures.

Harford County officials said they want to lure more upscale retailers to the county to serve the growing needs. James C. Richardson, executive director of the Office of Economic Development, said the county has been talking to Wegmans for about two years.

"We have a great number of residents going to Wegmans at Hunt Valley," he said. "That bodes well for a store here."

Edgewood-based Ward Properties, which owns the 40-acre property where Wegmans expects to locate, said it hopes to begin site work within six months. That would give the supermarket an estimated opening of January 2011, said James M. Martin, Ward's president.

"I think there's a current need in Harford County for a store of this kind, but part of Wegmans' thought process is the upcoming influx of people from BRAC," Martin said. "People have not stopped buying groceries. Our hope is to move quickly ahead once the lease is signed."

The $60 million development is envisioned to include a bank, restaurants and smaller stores, which might not be built until the economy begins to improve, Martin said. The project must receive county site plan approval.

The Abingdon store will likely be similar in design to the chain's newest stores, which offer a cafe where fresh seafood is cooked to order, Natale said.

Wegmans plans five other stores in Maryland, including two locations where construction has begun, in Crofton and Landover. Sites in Columbia, Frederick and Germantown are in the approval process, Natale said.

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