EDITORIAL: If you build it… they will move

MIRROR, MIRROR… who’s the biggest, most beautiful supermarket in the greater Chatham-Ghent metropolitan area?

At the moment there isn’t a choice. Price Chopper is the only supermarket in the community. But there soon will be space for another market twice the size of the current one, although it’s not clear whether anybody wants it. What’s going on here could be a great example of the free market at work or possibly a bizarre game of real estate “chicken” of little benefit to the public.

The situation in Chatham and Ghent reflects the food market sweepstakes playing out around the county, what with Hannaford opening its new pared-down supermarket in Livingston and, on the other end of the economic scale, the vigor of smaller stores like The Berry Farm and Real Food Co-op in Chatham, now joined by a much larger Samascott’s in Kinderhook and Claverack Food Mart, which plans to open a fresh food store on Warren Street in Hudson, and the Copake General Store set to reopen this week, not to mention the explosion of farmers markets all over the county.

All of the companies and individuals involved are savvy about the food business, and they must know something about the future of the county’s economy that other businesses may not have not fully grasped yet. But amid this tide of food shopping choices, the situation along Route 66 at the south end of the Village of Chatham stands out as squirrelly.

Price Chopper, a chain owned by the Golub Corporation in Schenectady, has more than 125 stores, most of them in this region. The company was founded in the depths of the Great Depression, and it was three years ago, in the midst of what we now call the Great Recession, that it began seeking to double the size of its store in Chatham by moving to a site adjacent to the current store.

As a matter of history, Price Chopper didn’t build its store at the Chatham Plaza. The store used to be a Grand Union supermarket, and after that chain went bankrupt, local residents breathed a sigh of relief when Price Chopper agreed to take over and keep the place open. Many other Grand Union stores closed their doors for good, including the one in Valatie.

The Ghent Planning Board votes next week whether to approve the permit for a new, 45,000-square-foot Price Chopper store. Some critics remain concerned that despite assurances to the contrary, flooding could become a problem. As much as I share those misgivings, I also know that Price Chopper is not engaged in an experiment here; the company expects to make money, which it can’t do if parking lots and access roads are underwater.

The Ghent Planning Board has conducted the environmental review as required by law. That’s the opinion of a state judge. The public has had opportunities to comment and criticize the plan. Price Chopper has played by the rules. In the future, the rules should change to discourage this type of sprawl. But at this time, the board should approve the permit.

Then there’s the separate saga of how the Hampshire Company, which owns the Chatham Plaza, has responded to the news that its largest tenant is leaving for greener pastures within spitting distance of the current supermarket. This week Hampshire received approval from the Village of Chatham Planning Board to expand and remodel the plaza to create a new retail space of… 45,000 square feet, exactly the floor space Price Chopper plans for its new store.

Why doesn’t Price Chopper stay put? The supermarket company says the plaza, no matter how it’s redone, doesn’t meet its standards. It sounds odd, but who wants to second guess the business judgment of this company when it comes to running a supermarket?

For all I know Hampshire already has a new tenant itching to fill up 45,000 square feet of retail space in its Chatham Plaza. As long as it’s not Columbia County government, which has a weakness for wide-open indoor spaces, any occupant of that scale would signal a welcome resurgence in local business development.

But unlike progress elsewhere in the county, this case looks more like spite than sound economics, right down to Hampshire’s expansion facade, which copies Price Chopper’s design. Amid all the good news about food and commerce in Columbia County these days, Hampshire’s plans leave a sour taste.

 

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