The wait for a new grocery store in the old Harris Teeter on Cherry Road will stretch on for a few more months -- but an end is in sight.
Earth Fare says it has signed a lease at Winthrop Commons and expects to finish renovations sometime next summer. Though a June opening is possible, July or August is a more realistic target, said Troy DeGroff, Earth Fare's director of sales and marketing.
A formal announcement is expected before Christmas.
Harris Teeter's departure last year had been rumored for years, in part because the store had little room to expand at Winthrop Commons, known by longtime residents as Beaty Mall. Still, the closing touched off an uproar among neighbors upset over having to drive across town for food.
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"It is a definite then, finally?" asked neighbor Laura Dufresne of Earth Fare's plans. "I guess I'll wait until summer. It'll be here before we know it."
This spring, Dufresne, a professor at Winthrop University, gathered some 300 signatures on a petition touting the need for a store. More than 100 neighbors called Crossroads Realty, which manages the center, to plead for another grocery.
The closest other options now are a Food Lion at the corner of Ebenezer and Herlong avenues, nearly 2 miles away, and a new Super Bi-Lo farther north on Cherry Road.
Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare is in the midst of an expansion across the Southeast, with leases recently signed in Auburn, Ala., and Johnson City, Tenn.
DeGroff said the company plans to add four to eight new stores every year for the foreseeable future.
In choosing Rock Hill for its fourth South Carolina location, Earth Fare studied income and education levels in surrounding neighborhoods. The company's two Charlotte stores, in Ballantyne and SouthPark, are each doing well, providing another reason for optimism.
"Rock Hill is basically very close to the Charlotte market where we have two stores, so we've already got some brand recognition," DeGroff said. "We think it would be a great complement."
The Rock Hill store will be modeled after the one in SouthPark, where a food bar offers Asian dishes, pizza, sandwiches and a seating area.
The store hopes to cater especially to Winthrop University, where students and staffers long have clamored for more amenities close to campus.
"Professors and students, while they may not be the bulk of our business, they are a key core group," DeGroff said. "Not to plug a competitor, but Trader Joe's was founded by somebody trying to appeal to an educated elite. They are a key piece of a population that's looking for what we have to offer."
Three or four discount grocers toured the old Harris Teeter, including IGA and Compare Foods, but Crossroads Realty said visitors were hesitant because of space constraints. Most grocers require at least 40,000 square feet of space; the building is 26,000 square feet.
City leaders joined the recruiting effort by reaching out to grocery chains with phone calls and figures on the potential customer base.