The new Kroger Marketplace shopping center scheduled to open next summer will be the company’s fifth store in Oak Ridge, and it could add more than 165 jobs, providing a “tipping point” for economic development, officials said Thursday.
It’s the largest in a series of retail construction projects now under way, including on Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue. It could be joined soon by the redevelopment of the Oak Ridge Mall.
“We are putting together the future attributes of growth,” Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan said during a Thursday morning groundbreaking ceremony near the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church.
The rapid pace of construction at the shopping center amazed observers. Just a few weeks ago, there were still many trees, two hotels, a Mexican restaurant, and debris from demolished homes on the 25-acre site. Not anymore.
“It shows you just how quickly this thing is going to move,” said Tim Coggins, Kroger district manager.
The $33 million Kroger shopping center is expected to open in July 2014, and it will be anchored by a new, 123,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace. Coggins said Kroger will grow from 135 associates to 300. The new store will include a bistro, clinic, drive-through pharmacy, fresh sushi, home center, jewelry and baby sections, an expanded natural and organic section, and apparel and shoes. There will also be a Starbucks Coffee and nine-dispenser Kroger Fuel Center.
Kroger officials said they aren’t ready to announce additional tenants yet. But the company has received several letters of intent from retailers interested in being part of the shopping center, said Bobby Capers, senior engineering manager for Kroger’s Southeast region. Those retailers typically include hair and nail shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, and banks, he said.
The rapid work and the brown mud at the site northeast of Oak Ridge Turnpike and Illinois Avenue reminded a few observers of the construction boom seven decades ago, when the Secret City was built in a frenzy as part of the Manhattan Project, a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic weapons.
Paying homage to that heritage, the shopping center has been named the Westcott Center in honor of James Edward Westcott, the official government photographer in Oak Ridge during World War II.
“It’s probably one of the most prestigious honors he’s ever had,” said Don Hunnicutt, Westcott’s son-in-law. “The family’s ecstatic over that. This will be here from now on.”
Officials and executives characterized the Kroger development as the product of persistence, hard work, and many hours of overtime. It included the acquisition of 57 properties, including dozens of homes in small neighborhoods on the former Robin Lane and Iris Circle, and the purchase of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church, which has been used for many community events.
Building construction on the new Kroger could start in October, and Capers said project executives hope to have a roof complete by the end of November, allowing them to work through the winter.
The previous Kroger stores were built in 1954 on the current Oak Ridge Mall site; in 1963, where Staples is now; in 1980, where the Oak Ridge Bowling Center is; and in 1993 at the current location on South Illinois Avenue. The stores were increasingly sophisticated, adding meat, deli, and bakery sections, and then registers with scanners. The current store set a sales record for a grand opening week when it opened, Coggins said.
“We couldn’t be here without the dedication of the customers in this market,” he told a few hundred people at Thursday’s groundbreaking.