Willits lands Whole Foods | AspenTimes.com

Willits lands Whole Foods

BASALT Basalt, at last, is going organic.Whole Foods Market announced Wednesday that it will build a 44,000-square-foot supermarket in Basalt. The natural and organic foods grocer will open a store at the Willits Town Center in early 2010.Willits is just upvalley from the City Market in El Jebel, setting up a classic battle for the wallets and gullets of shoppers. The stores will be less than one mile apart.The Basalt store will be the ninth in Colorado for Whole Foods but its first in a mountain town.”This is incredibly exciting,” said Cathy Cochran-Lewis, the Rocky Mountain regional marketing director for Whole Foods.She said residents have been vociferous about wanting a store in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Austin, Texas-based company is well aware of valley residents driving to Denver to shop at their stores. That “pent-up demand” helped sway the decision, she said.Willits founder Michael Lipkin made signing a specialty grocer a priority once he received approval six years ago to build 250,000 square feet of commercial space and 400 condominiums and lofts. He said recently he was tired of people bombarding him with questions about his progress.Lipkin wasn’t around to enjoy his day in the sun Wednesday: He was en route to a previously planned vacation in Mexico. A statement the developers released said negotiations with Whole Foods had been under way for 18 months.Basalt town government officials were thrilled about the announcement.”I think it’s a great opportunity for Basalt,” said Mayor Leroy Duroux. The supermarket will be an anchor that spurs other development in the Willits commercial core, he said.Town manager Bill Efting said Whole Foods seems to transcend the usual battles over growth.”When you mention Whole Foods to people, it’s about 98 percent positive,” he said.Small marketWhole Foods operates 194 stores in the U.S. and United Kingdom, most in metropolitan areas. It’s in the process of acquiring Wild Oats, another natural food chain.The Roaring Fork Valley is “one of the smallest markets” for the chain, Cochran-Lewis said. However, it serves other small markets in California.Population isn’t the only factor the company looks at when deciding where to locate, she said. Household income, retail spending habits, level of education and other demographics count, as well as demand.Willits’ chances to land Whole Foods improved last fall when Chicago-based Joseph Freed and Associates bought into the project. The company has a nationwide presence in building and leasing commercial space.Company representatives said landing an anchor tenant was their priority. The Roaring Fork Valley helped sell itself. “More than half of all the homes here are second homes, and the demand they create for goods and services is vast and discerning,” said Pamela Brady Ferrara, retail leasing agent for Joseph Freed and Associates. “Approximately 61,000 people live in our defined trade area and spent more than $3.3 billion in retail sales for 2005-06 fiscal period. The average household income within a 20-mile radius is $91,000, higher than many Whole Foods stores located in metropolitan areas.”Town tweakingWhole Foods selected a spot at Willits next to Highway 82. Although the project is already approved, the developers will seek an amendment to tailor a space for the supermarket.Whole Foods will occupy the ground floor of a building. The second and third floors will have 80 condominiums of affordable housing. The building will also have a 300-vehicle, underground parking garage and a screened parking lot.Efting said he anticipates the town council will undertake a review of the amendment this summer. Lipkin is hopeful that construction can begin in late summer.Whole Foods typically requires 30 months from groundbreaking to open a new store, Cochran-Lewis said. The market will employ roughly 150 workers.FORTUNE magazine has consistently selected Whole Foods as one of the 100 best companies to work for in America.City Market employs between 100 and 120 people in its store, which recently expanded from 52,000 to 60,000 square feet.The town’s going to net considerably more sales tax revenues with a second major supermarket, and the third in town overall. Clark’s is in downtown Basalt.Retail food sales accounted for $813,528 in sales tax revenues in 2006, or 37 percent of the town’s overall sales tax revenues. Adding a 44,000-square-foot market will draw more shoppers from throughout the valley. Willits is located about 20 miles from both Aspen and Glenwood Springs.The jobs will also be welcome, although Duroux noted that Whole Foods might have a difficult time filling them.”We, quite frankly, don’t have the work force or the housing,” he said.Basalt was one of nine new locations for markets Whole Foods announced Wednesday.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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