Friday, May 05, 2006

Not Too Soon to Bash Wegmans

In the typical classy manner in which I conduct myself and this blog, I have waited a couple of weeks to post an anti-Wegmans rant. It seemed a bit wrong to post such a topic during the public mourning of Bob Wegman, patriarch of America's favorite grocery store. I believe an adequate amount of time has passed however, and I am once again free to unleash my fury upon them. I promise, this will be a blog you can truly feel good about. Or it will really piss you off. Either way, you read it didn't you?

First, I'll acknowledge the positive contributions that Wegmans has made to this community. They employ many thousands of people locally, many in well-paying positions at the corporate or managerial level. They award generous scholarships to their brightest young workers annually, helping many young minds achieve educational brilliance. Their philanthropy throughout the region is well-known such as at the Wegmans Rochester LPGA, the Wegmans School of Pharmacy at St. John Fisher College, and numerous bequests to Aquinas Institute. Their expansions into other regions have brought added wealth and recognition to our community.

That being said, I hate Wegmans. I hate them with a passion that is only surpassed by my hatred of Wal-Mart, BJ's, or Applebee's. How can someone who so loves this city and region hate a home-grown company with such fervent animosity? It's nothing personal, their track record speaks for itself. Just look at what they've done in the City of Rochester. Over time, they've whittled down their store count to just two within the City limits. It is likely that this store count will drop to one within the near future as the Dewey/Driving Park store surely does not fit their long-term ambitions. The most recent inner city store closing was their beloved Mount Hope Avenue store, the anchor in the UR/Mount Hope retail district.

It wasn't long before they announced the closing that they had the neighborhood convinced they would get a brand new, larger Wegmans on the same site. When they decided they'd rather abandon another City neighborhood rather than attempt to fit in, they tried to justify it by saying they were losing money there. I'm pretty sure anyone that ever frequented that location knows that was a blatant lie. That store was constantly busy serving the needs of the thousands of UR students, faculty, and other employees, not to mention the thousands of residents of the surrounding neighborhoods. It probably did enough sales in beer alone to justify its existence.

They didn't just close the store though. They made sure that they killed the retail district as well. Wegmans instituted a restrictive covenant on the property to be sure that whoever bought the land did not build a competing market, whether it be a grocery (e.g., Tops), a convenience store (e.g., Wilson Farms), or a drugstore (e.g., Eckerd). Sure it may make good business sense, but where is their corporate citizenship in their hometown? If they couldn't make a go of it at that location, surely they could have allowed another chain to try. Since then, the store has been bulldozed and turned into a big parking lot for the Medical Center. Across the street, the venerable Record Archive recently shut down; its weathered building now sits awaiting its inevitable demise at the teeth of a bulldozer.

To add insult to injury, Wegmans continues to play with redevelopment plans for their hugely successful East Avenue store. That store too must be expanded in order for Wegmans to keep it viable (or so they say). Their solution? Buy up the block of historic buildings that once made up the main commercial strip of downtown Brighton way back when and knock them all down. In their place, put up a big suburban-style store with a sprawling parking lot. To appease we obstinate city folks, they propose windows along East Ave. Maybe even a streetfront entrance or two. Maybe a clock tower. Sure, the historical integrity of the neighborhood will be gone, and its pedestrian friendliness wiped away with it, but shoppers will have wider aisles, more checkout lanes, and a larger selection of tampons.

Now you can begin to see why I hate Wegmans. As a City resident, I cannot in good conscience throw my hard-earned money at a corporation that does not respect my ideals or my community. Even if that corporation is home-grown. In the time that Wegmans has closed inner city stores, Tops has opened a number of city locations. Their more flexible business model allows them to open smaller stores that more appropriately fit urban environments. It is possible that the death of Bob Wegman will allow Danny the opportunity to adjust the business model to create smaller, urban-oriented stores. But given the money they're making in places like Fairfax, VA or Cherry Hill, NJ, it seems highly unlikely. Wegmans has purposely banished itself to the same suburban sprawl as every other big box retailer. There they can cater to the needs of the wealthy and the wannabes, and leave the rest of us with no choice but to drive out to meet them. I'll stick to my local independent grocers and corner stores, the Rochester Public Market, and Tops. Will you join me?