Grocery stores spearhead local retail growth

Mall complete multimillion remodel as weak economy continued to squeeze business construction

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Grocery stores were among the few retail expansions announced in Clark County in 2012, as food merchants at both the local and national level prepared to do head-to-head battle for patrons.

Consumers continued to spend cautiously through 2012 due to high unemployment and weak job security. Meanwhile, banks clamped down on construction lending, thwarting all but a handful of Clark County’s most robust retail projects. Among the new developments announced in 2012:

• A new Grocery Outlet Bargain Market opened in January in a remodeled former Hazel Dell Albertsons space.

• WinCo Foods is expanding its Highway 99 store just off the Interstate 5 exit to Northeast 99th Street.

• Construction is under way on a brand-new Chuck’s Produce and Street Market at the intersection of Northeast Highway 99 and 117th Street.

Westfield Vancouver mall finished a multimillion-dollar remodel in 2012, a project that included the opening of the mall’s newest tenant, Cinetopia 23, a multiplex theater with the largest movie screen on the West Coast.

Projects on the horizon include:

• A new Battle Ground Walmart SuperCenter, expected to open in 2014 as part of the Mill Creek Town Center retail complex at Southwest Scotton Way and state Highway 503.

• Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has also announced plans to bring its smaller, grocery-centered Neighborhood Market store concept to the long-vacant WinCo Foods site in the Vancouver Plaza shopping center off state Highway 500 and Thurston Way.

• A similar proposal has been submitted to the city of Vancouver to build a smaller grocery store planned for the former Fred Meyer site at Fourth Plain and Grand boulevards. It remains unclear whether Bentonvillle, Ark.-based Walmart is behind the project. The company has not broken ground on a store planned for the Orchards area since 2006 on the corner of Northeast 143rd Avenue and Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, was widely criticized in 2012 by workers dismayed by wages. The company was also targeted by thousands of consumers who signed petitions demanding Walmart provide better factory conditions overseas, after a deadly factory fire in Bangladesh killed 112 people in late November.

The company, which operates three Vancouver stores, lowered its holiday sales outlook in November. Other national retailers followed suit, citing continuing high unemployment and volatile gas prices as reasons for the drop.

Aside from grocery store expansions, national retail developments could be six months to one year away in Clark County, according to some experts who say merchants must first regain confidence in consumer spending.

Despite the lowered expectations of national retailers, a number of local Clark County merchants continued to hold on through the downturn, citing a renewed interest in buying local.

A trickle of new boutiques and restaurants opened in empty spaces being leased for reduced rates, due to a high percentage of vacancies on the market.

Some find the small business growth encouraging, an element that could lead to a full economic recovery, said Kelly Parker, executive director of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

“From small businesses, we develop our entrepreneurial spirit and that drives the economy,” she said.