WAL-MARTING WHOLE FOODS

Whole Foods is often touted as an A-list guest at any real estate gathering. The buzz? Not every food retailer is capable of increasing neighborhood market values like a Whole Foods store can, as a recent profile in the Wall Street Journal revealed.The invitations are far from universal, though. In Eugene, Ore., a group of residents is trying to pull the red carpet out from underneath the supernatural

Whole Foods is often touted as an A-list guest at any real estate gathering. The buzz? Not every food retailer is capable of increasing neighborhood market values like a Whole Foods store can, as a recent profile in the Wall Street Journal revealed.

The invitations are far from universal, though. In Eugene, Ore., a group of residents is trying to pull the red carpet out from underneath the supernatural retailer, which is involved in a potential land swap deal that could bring a store into the depressed downtown area.

The $11 million development proposal pits Mayor Kitty Piercy and some city officials against the locals, who are concerned the store will put local, independent retailers out of business. The city of 140,000 people currently doesn't have a Whole Foods within the city limits, though it does host a number of independent natural food stores. It seems residents are fiercely protective of them, too. The second of two Wild Oats units in the same area closed in January.

Before the first free-range egg could be thrown, however, Mayor Piercy has appointed a Sustainable Economic Development Task Force to explore a number of development issues, including the impact Whole Foods Market would have. It is still tasking.

"Whole Foods Market is a major player," said Sue Kesey, co-owner of Springfield Creamery/Nancy's Yogurt, a Eugene-based supplier of natural dairy products. As a manufacturer, Kesey is from the school that believes the best way to expose more consumers to natural and organic items is to offer them in as many outlets as possible, regardless of the banner.

"It's very exciting for Eugene and will help to convert more people to our cause," she added. "Whole Foods Market would have an impact, but not a negative one."

The debate in Eugene in many ways mirrors any community's efforts to thwart the building of a Wal-Mart or a Costco. Opponents here are casting Whole Foods as a big corporation dressed in natural fibers, though the reality is usually far simpler. Residents are likely more afraid of losing choice.

That's how the issue was portrayed when a Whole Foods was blamed by some for closing down a nearby Puget Consumers Co-op unit in Seattle. PCC refutes the charge, saying it was a small location made obsolete not by Whole Foods, but three new PCC stores in the same area.

"The competitive landscape for food retailers is never static, causing both natural food and conventional store operators to continually re-evaluate where and how to reach consumers," said Diana Crane, the co-op's spokeswoman. "PCC is an example of a natural foods retailer that has been successful in making store location and renovation decisions over the past, and preserving and expanding our customer base, even in the face of increased competition from national chains such as Whole Foods and [Kroger-owned] QFC."