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Whole Foods store construction delay in West Duluth saved money

An architect’s rendering shows the look of the new Whole Foods Co-op store at 4426 Grand Ave. in West Duluth to be completed early next year. (Image courtesy of LHB)1 / 2
With the Denfeld High School clock tower in the distance, a power shovel operator moves dirt at the Grand Avenue site where Whole Foods Co-op is building a new store. Construction got underway last week. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)2 / 2

After a nine-month delay, construction finally started last week in West Duluth on Whole Foods Co-op’s new store.

But before the member-owned co-op announced the milestone for the

$3.8 million construction project, General Manager Sharon Murphy wanted to make sure it actually would happen.

“It’s very exciting, but it will feel more real when I see activity on the site,” she said on Tuesday.

She got her wish.

On Wednesday, fences started going up at the one-acre site at 45th Avenue West and Grand Avenue, below Denfeld High School. Heavy equipment arrived, and a big excavator soon was digging in. It’ll be the long-anticipated second location for Whole Foods Co-op, which has a store at 610 E. Fourth St.

If all goes well, construction led by Johnson-Wilson Constructors will wrap up in mid-February with the store opening in early March.

That’s nearly a year later than the previous timeline, which had construction starting last fall and the store opening this spring.

So why the delay?

“We decided not to do winter construction,” Murphy explained. “We didn’t want to spend the extra costs it would take. It takes money to keep the site warm enough, not for the people, but for the equipment. And the ground has to be warm enough to work in.”

She estimated the co-op saved about $200,000 by waiting. She said another holdup came in securing two loans for different aspects of the construction. That eventually was worked out with $3.8 million in financing through Members Cooperative Credit Union.

But with the hillside store doing well — membership is up to 8,400 and annual revenue rose to $16.6 million in the past year — Whole Foods didn’t need to open the new store sooner.

“Our history is not to move quickly on expansion,” she said. “Last time, it took us six years to find our other location and another 1½ years to get it opened. This feels to me that it’s moving at normal speed.”

Still, it has left many wondering what the holdup was after the September groundbreaking.

“Lots of people are quite anxious to find out when this store opens,” Murphy said. “They say they will become a member then. Lots are looking forward to it.”

Two stores, similar features

The one-story, 12,500-square-foot building will have an additional 1,500 square feet of basement space. Its 7,500 square feet of retail space will be roughly the same as the hillside store but with wider aisles.

Designed by LHB architects, the new store will have a brick facade, numerous windows and 18-foot-high ceilings, giving it an open look and feel. Like the hillside store, it will have a deli, hot bar, salad bar, a teaching kitchen for cooking classes, a large bulk-food section, locally grown and organic produce and sustainably sourced products. The store will have 60 jobs to fill.

The project’s total cost is actually $6.4 million. That includes $3.8 million for construction that meets Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification standards, store equipment and inventory, consultants’ fees and the $1.05 million purchase price for the former Jefferson Lines bus station site. That building was torn down in recent months.

The delay will result in some unexpected benefits. The store will open after construction work underway on the Bong Bridge is completed, affecting customers coming from Superior.

“That’ll be done when we open, and that’ll be great,” Murphy said.

And when the store opens in 2016, major reconstruction will be starting in front of the hillside store on East Fourth Street.

“So it’s very important to have the other store up and running before that happens,” she said.

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