A recent sign variance approval by Columbia County planning officials appears to clear the way for regional grocer Earth Fare to develop a 21,000-square-foot supermarket at the Belk-anchored Mullins Colony shopping center in Evans.

The retail center’s developer, Evans-based Mullins Colony LLC, last month requested approval for exterior signs larger than those allowed under county ordinances. The request – for 470-square-feet of signage – was approved by the county Planning Commission with special conditions last week.

Asheville, N.C.-based Earth Fare, through its public relations firm of record, declined to comment on the proposed Evans store. It also declined to comment on the continued operations of its existing Columbia County store, a 35,000-square-foot supermarket that anchors the Shoppes at Fury’s Ferry shopping center in Martinez at 366 Furys Ferry Road.

The Martinez Earth Fare opened in late 2007 in space formerly occupied by Winn-Dixie. A spokeswoman for the owner of the Shoppes on Fury’s Ferry, Augusta-based Hull Property Group, did not respond to a request seeking comment on the tenant’s status.

Based on artist renderings submitted to Columbia County officials, the new Evans store will feature the specialty grocer’s newer urban concept design, a typically 24,000 square foot development whose signs feature the taglines “Everyone’s Health Supermarket” and “Healthy Food For Everyone.”

Exceptions were granted for the additional signage because the supermarket is situated nearly 750 feet from the shopping center’s major corridor, Washington Road.

Earth Fare marketing materials say the new store layouts place greater emphasis on freshly prepared food items, including sandwiches and wraps, hot and cold beverages, salads and prepared entrees and sides. The organic and natural food grocer touts products that are free of high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats and artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners. Its bread, pasta and crackers contain no bleached or bromated flour.

The supermarket would be developed in the storefront space on the west end of the Belk store, which is the shopping center’s second-largest retail suite and its largest vacant space. Other Mullins Colony tenants include Cold Stone Creamery, Edible Arrangements, Diablo’s Southwest Grill, McAlister’s Deli and Tropical Smoothie. Outparcel tenants include Panda Express, currently under construction.

Earth Fare’s space was previously marketed to The Fresh Market, another specialty grocer with an existing store in the metro Augusta area. The deal reportedly fell through more than a year ago when the North Carolina-based company closed more than a dozen stores, but not its 23,000-square-foot market in Augusta’s National Hills shopping center.

Earth Fare has more than 50 stores throughout the Southeast and has announced plans to open 50 more during the next five years.

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