Prince George’s County’s first Whole Foods Market will open Wednesday with much fanfare. Store employees will tear a five-foot-long golden brown loaf of challah baked in-house and give customers a taste.
And Prince George’s County will get a sweet taste of victory.
Not just because the store is bringing 170 jobs to the county. Or because it will give residents of the county’s Route 1 corridor a high-end grocer where they can buy natural and organic products. Or because the wait for those doors to open took more than six years of planning, construction and delays.
“This opening is the realization that the county is competitive with the region,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) said. “It symbolizes change.”
The opening means Prince George’s, the most affluent majority-African American jurisdiction in the United States and one long ignored by big-name chains and businesses, is no longer an afterthought, Baker said.
“No one believed that the county could put out the resources, the energy and manpower to push projects through,” Baker said. “That all changed after Whole Foods. That was important to give developers and business folks the confidence to come here.”
The Riverdale Park store’s opening follows the December debut of the $1.4 billion MGM National Harbor casino resort in the southern part of the county and a wave of redevelopment in its northern end in Laurel. New residential and commercial projects are in the pipeline for New Carrollton, in central Prince George’s. And the Route 1 corridor, where the Whole Foods is located, is experiencing a construction boom from the District line to the Capital Beltway.
But it took a while to get here, Baker administration officials say, recalling the efforts to bring the Austin-based grocer as a major turning point. The store opens in Prince George’s years after the chain established itself in nearly every other jurisdiction in the region — including five stores in both the District and Montgomery County.
“We should have had one years ago,” said Joyce Camper, a Prince George’s resident who shops at Whole Foods in the District every week. “We feel like we got left out, but now we are excited to have it in the neighborhood.”
The Riverdale Park Whole Foods store anchors a $250 million development that when completed will be a town center of sorts with single-family and multifamily homes, restaurants and retail in a growing part of the county with access to Metro’s Green Line, a network of trails and the University of Maryland at College Park campus.
Developer Jane Cafritz said delivering the first phase of the project with the opening of the 40,000-square-foot Whole Foods fulfills a promise to bring more amenities to county residents.
Starbucks opened earlier this month, and District Taco, Habit Burger, Mod Pizza, Jersey Mike’s Subs, and Burtons Grill & Bar are in line to open starting this spring. Gold’s Gym, a nail spa, a physical therapy facility, a bank and a Comcast office also have signed leases at the site. Under construction are 16 townhouses, of a total of 120 to be built on the site just north of East-West Highway, with a starting price of about $440,000.
The store’s opening also brings closure to years of disputes between neighbors and the developer and county leaders who backed the project in the name of growth and economic development. While neighbors welcomed the Whole Foods, many opposed the overall plan for the property, chiefly because of its density. They fought a rezoning of the land from single-family housing — like the surrounding neighborhoods — to high-density that allows up to 1,000 residential units.
“The whole process left a bad taste in our mouths,” said Laurie Morrissey, who opposed the construction across from her Van Buren Street home on Route 1. “We were told that this was going to happen no matter what.”
The value of Morrissey’s home — and taxes — increased as construction progressed, she said, acknowledging a possible connection to the arrival of the high-end grocery store. Homeowners, real estate brokers and builders call it the “Whole Foods effect,” or the ability of the natural-foods powerhouse to become an engine for development.
And the store has already become a selling point to new residents in this part of Prince George’s, real estate agents say, noting that homes nearby are selling quickly. Many are going to millennials looking to settle in an area where housing is more affordable than in other parts of the Washington region but with the same amenities.
Elected officials anticipate the store will bring more vibrancy to the area, much like the revival of Logan Circle in the District, which many said was linked to the opening of a Whole Foods on P Street NW more than a decade ago.
“The Whole Foods effect is real,” said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s).
Two miles north of the Whole Foods, in College Park, a four-star hotel and conference center are set to open this year. The $115 million project will include a Mike Isabella restaurant and other dining options.
Two academic buildings and student housing are under construction on the U-Md. campus, and an apartment building is set to open this year. Several small shops have announced leases, including a Vigilante Coffee shop that will replace a liquor store this summer, a vintage fashion and furniture boutique, and a Halal Guys casual restaurant. A university day-care center is in the pipeline.
“Ten years ago, I said one day we would have people eating alfresco in the county. Now it is happening,” Pinsky said. “We see people on Friday night having a meal and having a drink. Just like downtown.”
Morrissey said she still worries about the effect all the growth will have on traffic, schools, police and emergency services. But with the Cafritz development well underway, she said, the community is cheering for its success.
“We don’t want it to fail. We don’t want it to be a ghost town with tumbleweeds coming through the street,” said Morrissey, who visited the Whole Foods during an open house Sunday. “I know people are excited about it, and I hope they shop there.”
For Whole Foods, which is facing increased competition from supermarkets and big-box stores that are selling more organic products — often at lower prices — Prince George’s and its 900,000 residents offer an opportunity to expand its reach.
“Customers [in Prince George’s] who do shop at Whole Foods have to do so in Montgomery County or D.C., and now they don’t have to do that anymore,” said Pia daSilva, a University of Maryland graduate and manager of the Riverdale Park store. “They can do it here in Prince George’s County.”
“Our residents have been wanting to have more options and more choices,” said daSilva, who grew up in Prince George’s and lives a few miles from the store. “It’s good to bring the dollars back to this community.”
Even neighbors who initially opposed the project agree with that.
“I want to hate it so bad,” said Morrissey’s partner, Jen Russell. “But it feels nice to have something nice in the county.”