Wegmans Food Markets, an 88-store company that is ranked as one of the top supermarket chains in the country, is looking to open its first North Carolina store in Cary across the street from Cary Towne Center.
The family-owned company, headquartered in Rochester, N.Y., is eying a site on a 90-acre tract north of the mall. The land is owned by Columbia Development Group LLC, a Columbia, S.C.-based shopping center developer.
“We have signed a letter of intent and are working through lease negotiations with Columbia Development Group, with hopes of reaching a final lease agreement sometime during the first quarter of 2016,” Wegmans spokeswoman Jo Natale said Monday in an email.
Columbia Development Group has submitted preliminary plans to the town that include thousands of square feet of retail, restaurant and office space, plus some residential, structured parking and potentially a 130-room hotel. The company has contracted to buy the land from the state for $21.15 million.
Wegmans, with locations in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Massachusetts, boasts a “European open-air market feel” with a pharmacy, ready-made meals, a pizza shop, coffee shop and more. The company plans to open at least 13 more stores in the coming years, according to the Wegmans website.
Representatives of Columbia Development Group discussed its preliminary development sketch plans with Cary staff at a pre-application conference Wednesday, Jan. 13. The plan shows 200,000 to 300,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space; 300,000 to 600,000 square feet of office space; and 300 to 600 apartments.
The Cary Town Council would have to approve rezoning the property before the project could move forward. Columbia Development Group has yet to submit a rezoning application to the town.
The Wegmans announcement, and the ambitious plans for the 90-acre site, come at a time when Cary Towne Center officials are determining the future of the indoor shopping center, which has been losing anchor tenants and smaller retailers. Sears closed in early 2015 and Macy’s announced this month that it would close its store this spring.
Cary Town Council members have said they want to the land off Cary Towne Boulevard, which is part of what they call the “eastern gateway into Cary,” to become a destination.
“This is a gateway into Cary, a gateway off of (interstate) 40,” Councilman Don Frantz said Friday. “It needs to be remarkable. It needs to be something that stands the test of time. It needs to be something that provides a lot of jobs, shopping, retail, restaurants and residential.”
Council member Lori Bush said Friday that she and others envision the 90 acres as “the next North Hills.”
“They’re doing what we had hoped, which is to partner with retail, commercial, office and residential, so that’s a great step forward,” Bush said. “I’m not sure it’s there yet, but they are working hard and continue to keep the lines of communication open.”
The council will discuss its vision for that corridor at a Tuesday, Jan. 26, work session, where members will review a draft plan for the east Cary gateway special planning area. The plan was drafted by Imagine Cary, a group of residents and planners.
Town staff have invited representatives of the Columbia Development Group to attend the meeting. Abbitt Goodwin Jr., a partner at Columbia Development Group’s Raleigh office, said he plans to attend.
If the development is approved, Wegmans would join a crowded field of grocery stores in Cary and western Wake County. Publix opened with fanfare in 2014 in west Cary – shortly after a new Harris Teeter opened on Walnut Street. And Publix plans to open a second Cary store in a former Lowes Foods store on Kildaire Farm Road.
A third Publix is planned at a shopping center at the northwest corner of Carpenter Fire Station and Green Level Church roads. A new Whole Foods is also set to be built on a 58-acre site at the southwest corner of N.C. 55 and N.C. 540, directly north of Panther Creek High School.
Meanwhile, Lowes has bought land in Cary for another store near the intersection of the future Morrisville Parkway extension and Mills Park Drive while it also has renovated existing stores. Lidl, a European competitor of Aldi, also hopes to enter the Cary and Apex markets.
Wegmans was ranked the No. 1 supermarket in the country in 2015 in Consumer Reports’ annual survey of customers. Out of 68 chains, it ranked high in freshness, baked goods and overall shopping experience. It was one of three chains, including The Fresh Market and Whole Foods, that earned high scores for produce.
Kathryn Trogdon: 919-460-2608: @KTrogdon