Today’s round of questions, my smart-aleck replies and the real answers:
Question: For reasons that aren’t relevant to this query, I had occasion to be speaking with a commercial real estate agent with Keller Williams several months ago. I questioned him why there was no Costco in Asheville, even though I know of multiple individuals who make the trek to either the Greenville or the Spartanburg stores in South Carolina. His answer was that Costco had such specific site requirements that it was difficult to find an interesting location with which to induce them to come out of the Upstate. Fast forward, and last week I was in the Greenville Costco store to renew my membership, and I asked a manager why the company wouldn’t give us any respect. He replied that it wasn’t Costco that was holding things up, but rather Asheville. He claimed that Costco had presented over time several possible site plans, but had basically been denied consideration by the city and/or county. Who is prevaricating here?
My answer: I think “prevaricating” is kind of a strong term. How about we go with, “peddling bovine dooty?”
Real answer: Ah, ye olde Costco question!
This is a perennial source of discontent among western North Carolina residents, as they have to make the long trek to South Carolina to enjoy the many pleasures of buying 400 rolls of toilet paper in one package at a Costco. I’ve heard the complaints for decades, and done some digging in previous years.
This go-round, let’s start with the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. I’ve been in this area 27 years and don’t recall Costco getting to the application or site plan stage — at least not one that made the news — so I wanted to check with the city and county planning departments first.
“Certain companies and businesses do have specific market-based requirements, standards and prototypes,” Buncombe County Planning Director Nathan Pennington said via email. “Oftentimes, there is just not enough flat developable land in proximity to water and sewer to meet prototypical requirements for large box stores in our area.”
So, how about a formal application?
Pennington said the county has “not received any development applications for a Costco.”
“I cannot speak to or substantiate any personal observations, potential real estate deals, conversations or rumors that the inquirer has listed in the question that was posed to you,” Pennington added.
Dang it! I do love a good rumor confirmation …
Over at the city of Asheville, Chris Collins, Planning & Development Division manager, said the city’s answer is similar to the county’s “in that I am not aware of any development applications for Costco within our jurisdiction.
“The city does sometimes receive development applications that identify a use rather than a tenant name, so there is a chance that something would have been filed at some point without staff knowledge of a tenant for a retail store,” Collins said via email.
What’s Costco say?
I also reached out to a Costco Wholesale spokesperson for comment — and got just about the response I expected.
“Unfortunately, it is our company policy to not comment regarding future Costco warehouses until we are ready to share details about the new location,” the spokesperson said, noting that the time frame is usually 2-3 months in advance of a store coming in.
Based in Issaquah, Washington, Costco is an international retail company with 842 locations worldwide, including 579 in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. The company charges an annual membership fee to shop in its warehouse stores.
Costco rumors surface with regularity around here. In short, locals really want a store in Buncombe or Henderson counties.
But I’ve not heard that Costco has been shot down by city or county planners.
Neither has Alan Freeman, a broker with the Shopping Center Group, which often works with Costco to find appropriate sites. They’ve had informal talks with officials regarding sites, but Freeman said he’s not aware of Costco ever getting to the application stage in Asheville or Buncombe.
“We’ve looked in that area, but it’s a tough task to find a large enough site in the mountains,” Freeman said.
Costco does have “some interest in the market” here, but it has not secured a site, Freeman added.
Chris Gragtmans, a commercial real estate agent with Keller Williams, said many brokers have tried, himself included, to find a spot for Costco in the Asheville area. A number of brokers have tried all sorts of creative ways to find Costco a site, he said.
“There was a bullseye on the Crayton Road site in the Biltmore Village area,” Gragtmans said, referring to the spot where Mission Hospital is now building a new mental health hospital.
That site had some issues with stoplights being a certain distance from Interstate 40, though, and that was tough to overcome, Gragtmans said. In short, Costco did not locate there.
“Costco has a template site plan, and they have national brokers who just crawl the market, and they drop that site plan onto things,” Gragtmans said. “Asheville is a tough market for Costco or any major player like that, because we’re very land-constrained, and because you need to have an 18- or 19-acre pancake site that they can drop their template on.”
Mountain topography plays a major role in this, as it’s tough to find large, flat sites close to interstates.
“That site needs to have utilities, and it needs to check off all the different demographics requirements that Costco is going to have,” Gragtmans said, referring to population, spending per household and other factors all retailers look at before locating in an area. “In Asheville, we have mountains and rivers and rock. And then we have an 8,000, 9,000-acre property owner right in the middle of town (The Biltmore Estate). Then farther out you have public lands.”
Slow to pull the trigger in the past
Rusty Pulliam, president of Pulliam Properties, a commercial real estate company based in Asheville, said he’s talked with Costco’s brokers on several occasions about sites.
“But they dragged their feet several times and missed several sites,” Pulliam said, referring to Costco.
One site was the current location of Asheville Outlets, formerly Biltmore Square Mall.
“That was the best place for a Costco around here,” Pulliam said, citing its proximity to Interstates 26, 40 and 240. “That’s the kind of site they’re looking for.”
In short, it’s not easy finding the ideal spot, but Gragtmans thinks Costco will keep looking in Asheville, as it’s a growing area with plenty of potential customers. He suspects Buncombe County would be the prime choice, mainly because it’s the population center, but he also said Henderson County could work, as the two counties are “kind of blending together.”
“A Costco would draw from a large area, and people would travel to it, just like they do for the (Asheville) Outlets,” Gragtmans said.
So for now, enjoy the drive to South Carolina to get your Costco fix!
Got a question? Reach out to Asheville Watchdog Answer Man John Boyle at (828) 337-0941 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org