In a grocer's proposed spot, residents remain

Wednesday morning at the Colony apartments in Charlotte, chipmunks scurried across tree-lined streets. Residents walked dogs. And inside the leasing office, assistant manager Robin Corum greeted guests with a wide smile and hearty hello.

If you were looking for an apartment, you would have been in luck.

If you're among those eager to see Whole Foods come to Charlotte, well, not so much.

The sought-after Austin, Texas-based gourmet grocer is supposed to build its first Charlotte-area store here, at Sharon and Colony roads, a block from SouthPark mall. And that's still emphatically the plan, those involved with the project say.

But four years after Whole Foods announced it was coming to the area, a Charlotte store is nowhere to be seen. Work on the SouthPark site won't begin until mid-2010 at the earliest, the Colony's owner says, and the proposed 50,000-square-foot Whole Foods has no set opening date.

In the meantime, other stores specializing in the natural and organic products that Whole Foods features are expanding in the region and winning customers – including an Earth Fare that opened across the street from the Colony last year. Conventional grocers, such as the nearby Morrocroft Harris Teeter, are also paying greater attention to such items.

Meanwhile, residents at the Colony – a 36-year-old complex with 353 units in two-story brick buildings – go about their lives at a much-coveted location, curious about what comes next.

Sl ow progress

Whole Foods, the nation's largest natural and organic grocery chain, has wowed customers with its expansive – and pricey – selection of produce, meat, cheese, wine, baked goods and prepared foods.

Its stores are located primarily in major cities and some college towns, including many where newcomers to the Charlotte area have lived. Of the nation's 35 largest metro areas, only three – Charlotte, Riverside, Calif., and Virginia Beach – don't have a Whole Foods.

In the Carolinas, the chain has locations in Winston-Salem, Greenville, S.C., Charleston and the Raleigh-Durham area.

Ever since plans to open a Whole Foods in Elizabeth fell through last year, the grocer has focused on bringing its first local store to the 27-acre tract where the Colony stands.

Progress has been slower than anticipated, those involved with the project acknowledge.

“We don't put stores on every corner, so we're always looking for a great spot for our customer base,” Whole Foods spokeswoman Darrah Horgan said. “(Real estate has) been a challenge.”

Nonetheless, the chain remains “very excited” about opening stores in Charlotte and is considering additional locations here, she said.

The SouthPark Whole Foods would be part of a mixed-use project likely to bring residences, a retirement community, a hotel and other retail to the space now occupied by the Colony, said Tim Hose, president of First Landmark, the Charlotte-based company that owns the complex and other properties.

The site is zoned for apartments. But Hose, who has been working with Whole Foods for three years, said he hopes to submit a rezoning petition by the end of summer, after firming up plans and meeting with neighbors and city staff.

Colony residents will receive at least six months' notice before they would have to leave, Hose said. The complex is now 95 percent rented and continues to offer year leases; 21 new leases were signed last week, he said.

Because the Colony still makes money, First Landmark hasn't felt pressured to make plans hastily, Hose said. “We want to do the right thing for SouthPark and the city of Charlotte.

“The longer Whole Foods waits, however, the more they risk losing loyal customers.

Beth Haenni, an Elizabeth resident and mother of two, loved her local Whole Foods in Washington, and wanted the same type of community-oriented store here. Last year, she helped lead a letter-writing campaign encouraging Whole Foods to come to Elizabeth.

Now, she said, her passion has waned. She's been visiting the SouthPark Earth Fare, across the street from the proposed Whole Foods, and figures she'll keep going as long as there's no gourmet grocer in Elizabeth. “I guess as much as it can be filled, the void has been filled by Earth Fare,” she said. “I've been really pleased with them.”

To head off such sentiments – and ensure it continues to dominate the national gourmet grocery market – Whole Foods has been accelerating its growth in recent years, said Charles Cerankosky, a food marketing analyst with FTN Midwest Securities.

But the company is very particular about where it locates its stores, he said. That is likely the source of the delay here, he said, and not a reflection on Charlotte.

What residents say

Whole Foods' interest in the Colony site isn't a surprise to the working professionals, families and senior citizens who live there. After all, the prime location lured most of them, too. Now, they're anxious to see how much longer they can hold onto it.

Though it's a block from SouthPark mall, the complex feels like a quiet neighborhood unto itself, said graduate student Ashley Fish, 24, as she relaxed by the pool Wednesday.

As someone who shopped at Whole Foods in Raleigh, she was disappointed to find there wasn't one here. Which, given where she lives, is a bit of a conundrum.

“I love it here, but I'd love for there to be a Whole Foods in Charlotte … I think I'd take a Whole Foods over this, but I'd rather have both.”

Connie Ross, 90, has lived in her two-bedroom Colony apartment since 1973, when the complex opened. This March, she celebrated her birthday in the clubhouse. She's not eager to head to a retirement home. “My plan is just to stay here till they ring the doorbell and tell me to get out,” she said, laughing.

Seven-year resident Jean Graeber, 84, said she doesn't know much about Whole Foods, but wants to stay at the Colony as long as she can.

“I hope they don't settle anytime soon. But if they do, this is life,” she said, pausing from a stroll outside the clubhouse. “You have to move on.”