By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 7:59 PM
When the glass doors at Wegmans in Prince George's County glide open at 7 a.m. Sunday, shoppers will be stepping into a place that symbolizes the county's continuing transformation.
For a county without any other high-end grocers - no Whole Foods, no Trader Joe's, no Harris Teeter - officials and residents describe it as an impressive achievement.
"One thing about Wegmans is they are very selective in terms of decisions on location," said Patrick Donoho, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "They are not going to open a store and in two years close it. They are good about picking locations that make a profit."
For decades, residents of Prince George's have complained about being snubbed by the business community, arguing that the wealthiest majority African American jurisdiction in the country is underserved by retail stores and restaurants. The opening in 2008 of National Harbor, a multibillion-dollar, mixed-use development on the Potomac River, expanded the options.
But county officials hope the arrival of Wegmans, which will now have just seven stores in the greater Washington area - Montgomery County doesn't even have one yet - signals the county's climb toward economic equality.
"They are known for the highest of standards," said County Executive Jack B. Johnson.
"It's a really big deal for us, considering how many others have asked for stores."
Developer Walter Petrie said it is the first time Wegmans has opened a store in a mostly minority market. "It was difficult," he said. "It took a lot of help from a lot of people."
For the past two years, county leaders had met with other upscale grocers about opening in Prince George's but none had made a move, said Kwasi Holman, the president and chief executive of the Prince George's County Economic Development Corp.
"The retail market crashed," he said. "So it's an ongoing process."Changing the landscape
Wegmans is one of four anchor stores in a new 245-acre, mixed-use development that will create a mini-city just off the Capital Beltway about a mile from FedEx Field.
Woodmore Towne Centre at Glenarden will eventually consist of 800,000-square-feet of retail space, one million-square-feet of office space, two hotels and 1,100 residential units. Costco, Best Buy, Petco and JCPenney are also tenants. Best Buy opened last month, Costco plans to open next week and JCPenney will open in spring 2011.
Luring them wasn't easy. David J. Byrd, the county's deputy chief administrative officer for economic development, has said political will, perception and race have contributed to the limited shopping options in Prince George's.
Woodmore Towne Center's developer, Petri-Ross Ventures, entered into a below-market deal with Wegmans and other anchors to become part of the project. Costco received a multimillion-dollar discount on rent, according to county documents, and the developer also agreed to reimburse Wegmans for some of its training costs. Petri-Ross has also asked the county to issue $17 million in bonds to help pay for infrastructure costs. The council is scheduled to consider the bill Tuesday.
Ralph Uttaro, senior vice president of real estate for Wegmans, said he chose Prince George's for the same reason he selected the locations of the other 76 stores in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia:
Good road access, high population density and high-income demographics.
Prince George's "had them all," Uttaro said. "And the market study showed that the market was underserved by the competitors there, so we saw it as a huge opportunity."
In 2008, about half of the black households in the county earned more than $75,000 a year and more than a quarter of residents had four-year college degrees. The median income in the county has gone from about $58,000 in 2002 to $72,000 in 2008, the last year for which figures are available.
"It validates the purchasing power here and should be a signal to other retailers that Prince George's has the prestige and purchasing power that they should consider when making location decisions," Holman said.Finishing touches
Although massive, the grocery feels like several smaller stores in one.
The 130,000-square-foot building, which is almost large enough to fit two ordinary grocery stores, will open to dozens of bins of fresh produce. There is a fresh-made sushi bar, a vegetarian bar, and individual stations serving Indian and Thai foods.
"We think the days when people want to make their own foods are kind of over," Danny Wegmans, chief executive officer, said during a phone interview. "We supplement what people make."
The store even features a small full-service restaurant, where patrons can order pan-seared Vietnamese black tiger shrimp for $10, grilled Australian lamb chops for $13 and a pan-seared mahi mahi sandwich for $8. No tipping is allowed.
Earlier this week, manager Ayana Douglas walked through the store, overseeing training and adding the final touches. About 6,000 people applied for the 650 full- and part-time jobs that were filled, she said.
Bakers were making muffins for employees to taste-test. Shelves were being stocked with nonperishables. Workers, who in recent weeks had been trained at stores in Northern Virginia, were getting last -minute refreshers in their new home.
"It's like a dress rehearsal," Douglas said. "We're serving employees in the food bar as if they were customers to check timing and quality. We have our entire maintenance staff here. We'll shut the power off to make sure the generator works properly."A regional draw
Although most grocers draw customers who live within a three-mile radius, Uttaro, the real estate executive with Wegmans, said their stores typically attract customers from up to 20 miles away. About 10 percent of its customers at a store in Southern New Jersey, for example, travel across the bridge from Philadelphia. That's why mailings about the new Wegmans in Prince George's were also sent to people in the District and even Anne Arundel County.
Bridgette Cooper, a Mitchellville resident, hopes the opening of the store sends a strong message to other retailers.
"I really hope that everyone that has been reluctant to come here is put to shame by this, because [a store like Wegmans] is long overdue," she said.
firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer Petula Dvorak contributed to this report.