Thursday was a good day for fans of the ALDI grocery chain.
Customers jammed the parking lot of the new store at 3612 Milan Road for its open house. Waited on by about 50 ALDI employees, they munched free samples of the food. As they left, a store employee handed each customer a canvas shopping bag filled with a water bottle and snacks.
The opening also was good news for Erie County’s planning department and its commissioners.
The opening of a second anchor store at Lakecrest Town Center at U.S. 250 and Strub Road -- a huge new Menards store opened April 14 -- was another milestone in transforming an old brownfield site into a successful commercial development. Commissioners had approved a tax increment financing deal to help pay for improvements at the site.
TIF deals in Erie County usually are reserved for industrial plants and important business ventures, not for fairly routine commercial developments that seek to bring in new stores, said Alex MacNicol, director of the Erie Regional Planning Commission.
But the chance to clean up the site of the former Bechtel McLaughlin metal plating plant, which left behind chemicals in the soil after it closed, made the Lakecrest Town Center project important to county officials, MacNicol said.
“We thought it was an opportunity that would never come back,” MacNicol said. “It was just going to deteriorate further and further over the years.”
The new ALDI opened for business Friday as the former store at 229 W. Perkins closed.
Sandra McCabe of Perkins Township was busy making a shopping list for the weekend as she looked over the shelves.
“I’m really excited,” she said.
Samantha Schermerhorn, 23, Sandusky, said she’s found that at ALDI’s prices, $100 will fill a shopping cart with food.
“I like the fact that it’s bigger,” she said. “There’s more room in the aisles.”
“They’ve got some really good prices,” said Nancy Klein of Vickery. “I’ve sampled as much as I can.”
The free samples offered to customers Thursday included several kinds of juice, pretzels, potato chips, imported Austrian chocolate, sausages, ham, granola, lattes and cream puff pastries.
Because ALDI relies on private label products to keep its prices low, rather than the name brands customers would recognize, the samples give ALDI a chance to show off the quality of the food, said Thom Behtz, vice president of ALDI’s Hinckley division.
Lakecrest Town Center is a 63-acre development. The opening of the ALDI and Menards stores leaves 45 acres left to develop, said Gary Marshall, a member of the development.
The developers hope to get a mix of additional stores, entertainment and resort offerings and office space, he said.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “We have people interested, but the economy is slowing down the whole process everywhere in the country.”
The Sherwin Williams outlet at 913 E. Strub was actually the first store to open in the development about three years ago.
Marshall said the brownfield cleanup at the site cost more than a million dollars. A low-cost loan from the Ohio Department of Development helped cover about two-thirds of the cost, he said.
A tax increment financing deal, such as the one Erie County put together for Lakecrest, relies upon the additional property taxes generated when a piece of land becomes a valuable development, generating additional real estate taxes. The TIF agreement captures part of that new tax revenue, earmarking it to pay off the cost of improvements that help make the project possible.
MacNicol said through the TIF agreement, commissioners agreed to pay for $1.7 million worth of improvements to the site, including roads, sewers, water lines and drainage.
It was a 50 percent TIF, MacNicol said, a typical percentage for Erie County projects. Half of the additional real estate tax revenues will go to the local political subdivisions, including Perkins Schools, which gets most of the money. The other half pays off the cost of the improvements, he said.
Although the TIF helped make the development feasible, it’s remarkable that a private developer, rather than government, covered the brownfield cleanup costs, MacNicol said.
“It’s not real common,” he said.