Big Y eyes Lee for new market

Thursday February 25, 2010

LEE -- The days of Lee being a one-supermarket town may be over.

Big Y Foods Inc. of Springfield is poised to buy the former Diesel Dan's truck stop plaza and build a new 48,000-square-foot store on the eight-acre parcel. The area is located off Exit 2 of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Big Y President Charles D'Amour and Frank Horacek, the company's vice president of real estate and development, unveiled their initial plans to town officials during an informal meeting late Tuesday afternoon. The gathering was assembled by Steven Roberts, president of F.L. Roberts & Co., which owns the truck stop that his Springfield-based company had planned to convert into a $21.5 million travel plaza.

"I asked to meet with all the town boards' chairmen to tell them what was going on, " Roberts said in an interview with The Eagle on Wednesday.

According to town officials, Big Y plans to model the new supermarket in Lee after the market it extensively renovated and expanded in Great Barrington more than a year ago. Town officials also said Big Y expects to create 125 to 150 new full- and part-time jobs in a community that lost more than 200 manufacturing jobs in 2008 when four paper mills closed.

F.L. Roberts has entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with Big Y contingent on the proposed supermarket receiving local and state approval, Roberts said.

If the project is given the green light, Big Y will give Price Chopper -- the town's only other supermarket -- competition for the first time since the former Adams Supermarkets chain closed its Lee store more than 20 years ago.

"It's the main question I get all the time: ‘When are we getting another supermarket?'" said Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Patricia Carlino. "Big Y has been wanting to do something in Lee, but couldn't find property close to the center of town."

Carlino was among several town officials who got a first glimpse at Big Y's proposal.

"Everybody was very enthusiastic about the project," said Lee Planning Board Chairman Anthony Caropreso. "It's a less intense use and environmentally friendly as the gas pumps will be gone."

Big Y officials declined to comment on the Lee proposal on Wednesday, but the company plans to release a statement on that matter today, a spokeswoman said.

One of the largest independently owned supermarket chains in New England, Big Y Foods operates 57 supermarkets in Massachusetts and Connecticut that include Berkshire County locations in Adams, North Adams, Great Barrington and Pittsfield. Big Y was ranked 303 in the Forbes' 2006 list of the top 500 largest private companies, but in December the company launched a voluntary layoff program for full-time store employees in both states aimed at ensuring the company's long-term financial health.

Since then, Big Y has acquired a pharmacy in New Milford, Conn., and closed its supermarket on Boston Road in Springfield. The more than 130 employees in the Springfield store were offered employment opportunities at other company supermarkets that had opened up because of the voluntary layoff program, according to Big Y.

In 2008, Big Y entered into a lease with the owners of the Pittsfield Plaza on West Housatonic Street to build a supermarket to replace its current Pittsfield market on West Street within two years. The lease is still on file at the Middle Berkshire Registry of Deeds.

F.L. Roberts had planned to build a $21.5 million travel plaza that included a 93-room hotel, 210-seat family-style restaurant, a convenience store, a gas station and a car wash. While the Planning Board approved the project in December 2007, the Springfield developer has had difficulty finding companies willing to invest in operating a new hotel or restaurant in the current economic climate.

"We couldn't prudently and financially continue to pursue our project," said Roberts. "I am personally disappointed."

Roberts added his company had every "intention to rebuild the property in a first-class manner" when it bought the parcel in the late 1990s.

Tony Dobrowolski also contributed to this report.


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