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Stafford to enter tax break negotiations with Harris Teeter

STAFFORD — The stalled revitalization of Aquia Town Center is the biggest failure of Paul Milde’s political career.

For more than 10 years the once bustling shopping center at the corner of Route 1 and Garrisonville Road in North Stafford has been nothing more than an empty field. The last of the buildings in the strip center, excluding a Rite Aid pharmacy, are demolished.

“When I ran for office I promised to fix it, and I couldn’t have done a more miserable job,” Milde said Wednesday.

Now the Chairman of the Stafford County Board of Supervisors, preparing to leave office in December after 12 years representing the Aquia District, Milde is making a last-ditch effort to kickstart the redevelopment project — again.

County leaders voted 5-2 Wednesday to allow County Executive Thomas Foley to begin negotiations with the current owners of Aquia Town Center, Mosiac Realty Partners. The developers asked for $18.3 million in tax incentives over 20 years, on top of the $6 million in tax breaks already awarded to jumpstart development and lure a grocery store to the center.

Eron Sodie, of Mosaic, says a 67,000 square-foot grocery is what’s needed to anchor the shopping center, and attract other businesses. Harris Teeter, its parent company Kroger, is the only grocer that has shown interest in the site, he adds.

The problem is, Kroger is in a fierce a price war with emerging food retailers ALDI and Lidl, smaller German companies with locations in Stafford, and aggressively expanding across the region and the U.S. Kroger has also curtailed plans to open new stores, said Milde, like one in Colonial Heights near Richmond.

County Executive Foley will now head to the negotiating table with Kroger to negotiate a tax-increment financing subsidy, or TIF, that could lure the retailer to Stafford, and to find “the best deal for the taxpayer,” he said. The results of the negotiations will be disclosed to county supervisors at a public meeting Aug. 15, and they will take a final vote on the matter Sept. 19.

Aquia Town Center is already a failed shopping center site, according to those who spoke at a Stafford Board of Supervisors meeting. It was once home to a variety of small shops, Gargoyles coffee house, and the anchor store Shoppers Food Warehouse. In 2003, however, Shoppers fled from Aquia Town Center across Route 1 to its current location at Stafford Marketplace on the still growing Garrisonville Road corridor. That marked the inevitable demise of the Aquia Town Center and led to its demolition.

A Regal Cinemas, one of the last two tenants of the old shopping center next to Rite Aid, was demolished this past spring. Left in its wake is an office building and the budding new Aquia Fifteen condominiums which both sit on land not owned or controlled by Mosaic.

Ramco-Gershenson Properties Trust, of Michigan, purchased the property more than 10 years ago and in 2007 announced an elaborate plan to remake the shopping center. Demolition of the old structures began. Then the recession hit, and so did years of moving dirt from one side of the construction site to the other with nothing rising from the rubble.

Hopes rose again in 2015 Ramco sold a portion of the town center property to Mosiac, which announced a new grocery store would soon be built. Shortly after that, Stafford leaders awarded $6 million in tax breaks to help kickstart the project.

Aquia Harbour residents and those who work inside the gated community of more than 9,000, located behind the town center, tired of crossing Route 1 and fighting Garrisonville Road traffic, say this next round of nearly $20 million in tax incentives is what is needed. They argue something on the beleaguered site is better than nothing.

“I’m here today to ask you to accept millions of dollars in revenue, 60 percent of which will go to the schools. And in doing so will secure a high-end shopping center in an abandoned lot that is hurting one of the oldest and largest planned communities in Stafford County,” said Patricia Harman, Aquia Harbour general manager. “That lot has sat empty for 10 years. Holding out for a better deal is not working.”

There are two plans for a revitalized Aquia Town Center, one with a 28,000 square foot restaurant in addition to Harris Teeter, and one without. Each plan with tax incentives generates an estimated $34 million and $24 million, respectively, according to county documents. Without tax breaks, Plan A with the restaurant would generate an estimated $72 million, and $51 million without the eatery.

Six grocery stores sit within a two-mile drive of Aquia Town Center.

“I’m an ex-Kroger employee, and Kroger is a multi-billion dollar company,” said Jim Heffner. “I would like to see us in the county attract a business that brings in full-time, good paying jobs that make tax payers here. Grocery stores are a part time, pass through jobs. Low wages, not a whole lot of benefits unless you pay for them. It’s not what we want to attract here.”

The two supervisors opposed to Kroger negotiations, Wendy Maurer, of the Rock Hill District and Meg Bohmke, of Falmouth, say using tax incentives to lure grocery stores to an already saturated grocery market is not the role of local government. With Stafford’s population expected to grow in the coming years, both say a business will eventually take an interest and build in the place located just off the Interstate 95 and its E-ZPass Express Lanes, hopefully creating higher-earning jobs.

“I’m willing to grade the site and plant seed, and make it passive park until the market changes,” said Maurer.

Before Wednesday’s vote to move ahead with negotiations, Foley announced the county would push for the tax incentive term to be 20 years, not 30 as originally discussed. Officials will also push for a full development of the town center’s 167,000 square feet all at once rather than development in phases.

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