Spokane Journal of Business

Whole Foods nixes plans to open store here

Specialty chain had signed letter of intent for former Empire Ford building downtown

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Specialty foods giant Whole Foods Market Inc., after coming so close to opening a store here that it had signed a letter of intent to buy the Empire Ford dealership building downtown, apparently has decided to shelve for now its plans to enter the Spokane market.

Meanwhile, Trader Joes Co., the other big specialty grocery chain that for the past few years has been rumored to be eyeing the Spokane market, has decided against expanding to Spokane for now, but reportedly is looking at opening a store here within the next five years.

Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, a natural and organic foods chain, has more than 270 stores in North America and the United Kingdom, including five on the West Side of Washington state, where its developing two more stores, its Web site says. Spokane real estate executive Dave Black says he has been talking with the company for two years about opening a store here. He and Chris Bell, both of Spokane-based NAI Black, have been marketing the Empire Ford building since Nate and Roberta Greene, who own the structure, shuttered their longtime Ford automotive dealership there in December.

Whole Foods settled on the Empire Ford location, at 423 W. Third, because of its size and plentiful parking, as well as its proximity to Interstate 90 and the downtown core, Black says. In addition, it wanted a store near the South Hill, because of its aim to operate stores near areas that are highly populated with college-educated residents, he says.

Whole Foods looks for buildings with about 60,000 square feet of space and within 20 minutes driving distance of 200,000 people. It had planned to use the 42,000-square-foot main floor of the Empire Ford building to house the store and the 200 parking slots located on its upper levels for customer parking, Black says. It hadnt planned on using the dealerships surface parking area across Third Avenue, he says.

A spokeswoman at Whole Foods declined to comment.

It wasnt about the building or the location; it was about the market, Black asserts. This is a good example of how the national economy affects Spokane.

Although Whole Foods had signed a letter of intent to buy the property, the final decision depended on approval by the companys board, he says. Last week, the board decided to pull out of the deal and table the companys plans to enter the market. The company is in the midst of evaluating the performance of its stores and is re-examining its expansion plans in light of a struggling national economy and skyrocketing fuel prices, Black says.

The fact is that Spokane is a tertiary market for them, Bell says. It was a stretch to begin with, and now with the way the economy is going and how much it would cost them in fuel to get their goods here, theyve decided to wait for awhile.

Black says the company didnt disclose when it might again take up its plans to open a store here, but says hes confident, based on his discussions with representatives at Whole Foods, that they will be in Spokane someday.

As part of the Whole Foods deal, Black had planned to buy ownership in the Empire Ford building, but now has canceled those plans. After the deal with Whole Foods fell through, NAI Black lowered the asking price for the 1.5-acre property to $3.95 million, down from $5.3 million. Black says a number of potential buyers have looked at the building, including people who are interested in developing it for office use, and adds that the structure makes sense for an office conversion. The property includes a 49,500-square-foot building and an 82,500-square-foot parking structure.

Last week, after Whole Foods canceled its plans to buy the dealership building, Bell talked to a representative from Monrovia, Calif.-based Trader Joes, which has looked at the Empire Ford building in the past. He says the representative told him that Trader Joes doesnt plan to open a store in Spokane in the near future, but the chains five-year plan calls for opening stores here and in the Tri-Cities at the same time.

Last month, a spokeswoman at the specialty and imported foods retailer confirmed that it doesnt plan to open a store here right now, but declined to disclose further details. The chain has more than 280 stores in more than 23 states, including 13 in Western Washington, where its developing one more, its Web site says.

  • Emily Proffitt

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