Wawa made it official Wednesday morning – the popular food market is coming to Ocala and Marion County and it’s doing so with a vengeance.
More than 150 people, including residents, veterans, city and county leaders and Wawa officials gathered at a vacant lot at 3601 E. Silver Springs Blvd. to officially break ground on the first Wawa store in the Ocala market.
The two other stores that soon will be under construction are located at 3312 W. Silver Springs Blvd. and at the intersection of S. Pine Avenue and 10th Avenue. And the goal, Wawa Real Estate Manager Alex Czopek said, is to open all three stores on the same in the first quarter of 2019.
Czopek also told the applauding crowd at least three more stores are planned in Marion County – two in Ocala and one in Belleview – with opening dates set for spring/summer of 2019.
Czopek also said that two stores in The Villages-area will be opening next year. The first one, located in Lady Lake on U.S. Hwy. 27/441 near Lemon Street, required demolition of “The Castle,” the distinctive-looking Medieval structure that housed Affordable Lock & Security Systems. Plans for that Wawa raised concerns and protests among many area residents.
But work already is under way on that location and many who moved to the area from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland or Virginia and were familiar with Wawa are excited about the planned opening.
The second Villages-area location will be across from the Lowe’s Home Improvement store on U.S. Hwy. 27/441. Work hasn’t yet started on that store, which is located in Sumter County.
Wawa’s first Villages-area store opened in November 2017 at the corner of U.S. 301 and County Road 466 and has been quite busy ever since, no doubt helping to convince Wawa officials of the need for more locations near Florida’s Friendliest Hometown.
Czopek said Wawa’s eventual plan is to connect the Orlando-Tampa markets to the Central Florida corridor that stretches north from Leesburg – a store eventually is planned at the corner of U.S. Hwy. 27/441 and Griffin Road – through Ocala and Marion County and into Alachua County.
“Our plan for 2020 is to open stores in Gainesville,” he said, adding that four sites already have been selected in the busy college-driven market. “And over the next five to 10 years, we intend to make this part of Florida grow even more. We’re looking to have 20 Wawa stores, perhaps a few more at that time.”
As for the move into Ocala, Czopek said he and his colleagues couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities ahead.
“We’re delighted to spread our wings into this great community,” he said. “It’s always a thrilling opportunity to serve a new market, new customers and Wawa fans.”
Todd Sounders, who serves as senior director of Florida operations for Wawa, said the company opened its first Florida store in 2012 and now has 154 locations up and running in the Sunshine State. He said the company invests more than $6 million in each location, which positively impacts local suppliers, builders, contractors and vendors. And he said each store employees more than 50 people.
“We’ve invested more than $1.8 billion in Florida with building these stores,” he said. “It’s just awesome being a part of that.”
Marion County Commission Chairman Kathy Bryant said she’s thrilled to have a company coming to the community that’s willing to spend more than $36 million in capital investments and employ up to 270 people.
“That’s huge,” she said. “It’s a win for Marion County and it’s a win for Wawa because we know that you’re going to be here for many, many years to come. And we know that we have a lot of people who are looking forward to coming to work for you and visiting your stores.”
Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn called Wawa a great community partner.
“This has been about a 2½-year journey,” he said. “And we’re really excited about you being here.”