A city planning board meeting involving a "grocery store" beginning to be built at Brampton Avenue and Fair Road was underway when a reporter's cellphone, neglectfully left on, rang. It was Wal-Mart Stores Inc. calling to confirm that the 41,000-square-foot supermarket will be a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market.
"We weren't trying to be mysterious," Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz said when the call was returned after the meeting.
Instead, he said, the company had to follow a certain protocol about who was notified before making a public announcement.
"We've completed that process now, and so I wanted to say we're really looking forward to building the store," Wertz said.
Statesboro's second Wal-Mart store will offer fresh produce and other groceries, a bakery and deli, a drive-thru pharmacy and a limited number of household items. In addition to the store, the Neighborhood Market will include a gas station, according to a description Wertz emailed.
Wal-Mart hopes to have the store completed in nine months, he said, suggesting that it should open next spring. A Neighborhood Market typically employs about 95 people.
Unconfirmed reports that the store would belong to Wal-Mart had circulated in Statesboro for months. But during Tuesday's 5 p.m. Statesboro Planning Commission meeting, as at a City Council meeting in May, the project was identified as the Hutton Company's. Hutton, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is developing the overall shopping center, at a reported cost of $14 million, as an addition to the Market District commercial subdivision.
The shopping center is planned to include about 15,000 square feet of other retail space, besides the supermarket and gas station.
The item before the planning board Tuesday was a variance request for the site from Polestar Development, a limited liability corporation affiliated with Hutton. City planning officials referred to the largest building in the project as "the grocery store," and Hutton Development Project Manager Ben Carroll said he was under a confidentiality agreement when asked about the brand.
So Wertz's response revealed what the meeting didn't.
Wal-Mart is now basing its growth strategy on smaller stores, as business media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal have been reporting for months. In a story posted Wednesday at www.cbsnews.com, CBS Moneywatch reported that Wal-Mart plans to add 300 of these stores, namely Wal-Mart Express stores and Neighborhood Markets, in its current fiscal year.
"I don't have the number in front of me, but we are expanding quite a bit our smaller-format stores," agreed Wertz, who answered the call-back while traveling. "They're very popular with customers and offer a great combination of low prices and convenience."
At 41,000 square feet, the Neighborhood Market will be less than a quarter the size of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Northside Drive East. The Supercenter measures 190,000 square feet, as shown in Bulloch County tax documents.
But the Neighborhood Market's size is well within the range that qualifies it as a supermarket. Food Marketing Institute, on its website www.fmi.org, reports 46,500 square feet as the median size of a U.S. supermarket in 2013.
Primarily a food store and pharmacy, the new store will not include several types of merchandise found in a Supercenter, such as hardware, clothing, sporting goods and major electronics.
Why two stores?
Still, everything available in the smaller store could probably also be found in the Supercenter, Wertz acknowledged. And by a casual odometer measurement, the two stores will be about 2½ miles apart.
But the two kinds of stores work well together and will let customers choose where they want to shop, Wertz said.
"They can go to the Supercenter when they're looking for hardware and other merchandise that they carry and then choose to shop at the Neighborhood Market when they just need groceries or want to run in quickly and conveniently for a few items," he said.
The Market District location is very near East Georgia Regional Hospital and closer to Georgia Southern University than the existing store.
Wal-Mart's plan is the first confirmed response to recent efforts by the city and local development agencies to bring more supermarkets to Statesboro. In March a city-ordered study by the Retail Strategies firm gauged local, annual unmet potential for grocery sales at $56 million.
A larger shopping center, to include a supermarket, is planned by Armstrong Development for land north of Northside Drive East at the U.S. Highway 301 bypass. But no announcement has been made about the supermarket or other retailers.
The planning board recommended, 4-0 with three members absent, that the city allow Polestar a variance eliminating a side setback of 15 feet and required distance of 20 feet between the store and the proposed block of smaller shops.
After Statesboro Planning and Development Director Mandi Cody noted that the city's regulations prohibit creation of lots with no public road access and that part of the site would be accessible only from a private street, a condition was added that the street, Archway Drive, be granted to the city by the developer or landowners.
Some neighboring property owners attended out of concerns about the setback variance, but voiced no objections after this was explained to be internal to the project. Setbacks from neighboring lots would not be affected.
The planning board's recommendation goes to City Council for a hearing and vote next Tuesday.
Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9454.