Food City may open store in Unicoi Co.

Brad Hicks • Mar 8, 2013 at 9:02 PM

ERWIN — An area grocery chain has an interest in setting up shop in Unicoi County, and preliminary work is under way to determine if the county could support a new store.

Food City President/CEO Steve Smith said Friday that his company is interested in the possibility of bringing a Food City grocery store to Unicoi County and the opportunity has been explored for “several months.” Smith said his company is in the process of doing its homework and evaluating the geography of Unicoi County.

“It’s part of our market that we don’t service,” Smith said. “Again, we don’t have a store in the county at this point in time and, certainly, we get some Unicoi County customers that come over to Johnson City and shop with us. But we’re all the time looking at population numbers and demographics of particular locations to see what the viability is of having a store in a town or a county.”

Whether Unicoi County has the traffic to support a new store would be determined upon completion of Food City’s due diligence process, Smith said. He also said that just because officials are studying Unicoi County does not mean a new store here is a certainty, as it may be determined through the evaluation that the area is not a viable option to support a new store.

“Unfortunately, sometimes you do your homework and it comes back that, maybe, it’s not justified or whatever the situation is,” Smith said.

“So, again, you’re constantly looking at towns, even towns where you have stores. You’re always looking. Is there an opportunity, has there been a shift in the population, is there some area that’s growing that may be underserved by supermarkets? That’s part of what we do as grocers. You’re always looking for opportunities to build new stores or even sometimes replace older stores with newer stores, bigger stores.”

Smith also said potential locations in Unicoi County would be kept under wraps while the company is studying the area.

Should Food City eventually determine Unicoi County could support a new store and the company decides to move forward, Smith said it could be some time before the store is constructed and opened to county residents.

“I’ve seen it literally take years before,” he said. “Sometimes you look and the population is not quite there, sometimes the location is not there. It just varies. Sometimes it can go very quickly and sometimes it can take years, so there’s really no fast and hard rule on that.”

Food City is based in Abingdon, Va., and has more than 100 stores in the region, with new stores opening soon in Vonore and Knoxville. The company employs around 13,000 associates.

Both Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and Unicoi County Economic Development Director Tish Oldham said their offices have not been contacted by Food City officials.

Although a possible landing spot for a new Food City store has not been determined, the town of Erwin has available properties along Second Street, which should see improved access upon completion of the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s railroad overpass project. Hensley said local officials have undertaken efforts to attract prospective businesses to the former Hoover Inc. and Morgan Insulation properties.

“Right now, we’re just trying to work with owners of the property to find a buyer for them,” Hensley said. “I know some of the officials would like to see retail go in there, which certainly the Food City would be one, it would fit right in there. However, that property on Second Street is about the best manufacturing site that we have simply because they’re located on the railroad. It would be easy to put in a rail spur in there.”

While officials have not yet determined how they would like to see the property used, Hensley said she expects the matter to be a subject of discussion at an upcoming strategic planning session of the Unicoi County Economic Development Board. She said officials will also likely discuss the economic directions of the towns of Erwin and Unicoi, as well as the county as a whole.

“It just stands to reason that, with the (new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital) going on the south end, we’re looking out there,” Hensley said. “Probably the main part of our growth will be in the south end first, but we don’t want to overlook all the other assets we have inside the city.”

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