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If Publix supermarket does not come to Orchid, Village Beach Market interested

Photo: Chief operating officer Jason Keen at the Village Beach Market in Vero Beach.

Overwhelming local opposition to Publix’s plan to build a supermarket-anchored shopping center in Orchid has renewed the Village Beach Market owners’ interest in putting a second island store on the seven-acre parcel a half mile east of the Wabasso causeway.

Jason Keen, chief operating officer of the Vero Beach Market, said he’s closely monitoring the situation, waiting to see if Publix withdraws its application after a recent survey of the town’s homeowners revealed 87 percent of them opposed the Florida-based supermarket chain’s proposal.

A digital survey, conducted last month by the Orchid Island Community Association after Publix representatives gave a presentation in the town, showed that 221 of 255 respondents opposed the project. Only 14 homeowners – just 6 percent – were in favor of it.

Nicole Krauss, Publix’s corporate spokesperson for Florida’s southeast region, did not respond to email and phone messages seeking comment on the survey’s results.

“We’re not going to do anything with the town until we know Publix is out, one way or another, but we still definitely have an interest in doing something up there,” Keen said. “We think we’d be a good fit with the town and the surrounding community.”

Keen, whose family has been in the grocery-store business in Indian River County since 1951 and operated the Village Beach Market on State Road A1A since 1980, said he already has had preliminary discussions with potential partners he’d need to develop the property.

He said he initially contacted the property’s owner, longtime Vero Beach businessman Ken Puttick, early last year to inquire about purchasing the land. By then, however, Puttick already had a contract to sell to Publix, contingent on the town’s approval of the project.

Given the results of the survey, along with the opposition expressed by residents in neighboring subdivisions outside the town of Orchid who did not participate in the poll, it now appears unlikely the Town Council will approve the plan submitted by Publix, which is seeking significant variances and waivers to the town’s building code.

Keen said his company and its partners could submit a plan for a smaller market – in a cozier, town-center-type setting that would include retail shops and a restaurant and become a gathering spot for local residents – which he believes is more compatible with the Orchid community.

“I’ve been watching the process play out, and I’ve learned a lot about what the people in that community want,” said Keen, who told Orchid Town Manager Noah Powers last March that his company would seriously consider building a grocery store on the same site if Publix’s plans fell through.

“They don’t want anything big there,” he added. “They want something they can feel comfortable with, something that’s going to fit in aesthetically with the natural beauty of the area and have minimal impact on environment.

“I think we could meet their demands, and they’d be receptive to our plans for a smaller store.”

Keen said he believes he could build a 6,000-square-foot store in accordance with the maximum size permitted under the town code, which also limits business hours and prohibits Sunday operations.

“I wouldn’t object to being closed on Sundays up there,” he said. “It might add a quaintness and small-town feel to the setting, and it might even save us money during the summer months. We’re working the numbers to see how it would work.

“We want to be ready if the opportunity presents itself.”

In the meantime, Keen said the Village Beach Market is planning a massive renovation to update infrastructure and give the store a “fresh, new look and feel.” Work is scheduled to begin in May and be completed in June.

“That’s what we’ve been working on, because we didn’t know what would happen in Orchid,” he said. “Besides, it’s been 20 years. It’s time.”

Keen’s company also is exploring the possibility of building another Village Beach Market in the Vero area. He said the new store, however, likely would be a franchise run by a local owner-operator, similar to the Chick-fil-A model.

“That’s our goal going forward,” Keen said. “We’d like to grow our company and expand our business. It would be another small store with the same customer service and neighborhood feel.”

An Orchid store, though, would still be owned and operated by the Keen family.

“If we put a store up there, it’ll be a second store for us – not an outside owner-operator situation,” Keen said. “We’d own it. We’d run it. Hopefully, we’ll get that chance.”