Baylor University students reacted strongly to news Friday that H-E-B will close its store on the edge of campus as it plans to build a new H-E-B Plus! on the former University Middle School site on South Valley Mills Drive.
Several said the aging but convenient store on Speight Avenue at South 12th Street is “a Baylor tradition,” where students can pick up a few items in a pinch without venturing far from school.
“That’s a terrible decision,” said Bracken Arnhart, 24, a business major from Longview who emerged from the South Waco H-E-B carrying beverages he placed in his pickup. “My friends probably buy 90 percent of their groceries and other things here.”
Sarah Blair, 21, a senior piano performance major from Tyler, expressed disbelief when told of plans to shutter the grocery.
“Everybody comes here,” she said. “I visit at least once a week, and I sometimes bring friends who don’t have cars.”
She said she believes H-E-B will lose business as students pursue options closer to school, mentioning the Walmart store on Interstate 35 in Bellmead.
A couple of students said the store on Baylor’s fringe has its drawbacks. Its selection is limited, they said, and some prefer to walk there in groups after sunset.
But they said Baylor won’t be the same with the loss of what they laughingly described as “our ghetto H-E-B.”
Baylor officially took the high road in its response to H-E-B’s announcement, with spokeswoman Lori Fogleman issuing a statement, saying: “H-E-B has been a wonderful neighbor of ours, and we are thankful we will still have a store in our neighborhood.”
Still, that neighborhood has gotten much larger, as H-E-B will erect its new 121,000-square-foot Plus store at South Valley Mills Drive and Interstate 35. It will become the largest store operated by the San Antonio-chain in the Waco market. It will sell groceries as well as general merchandise.
“The store is designed specifically for the Waco community, featuring design elements such as the signature red brick of the nearby Baylor University campus,” H-E-B spokeswoman Tamra Jones said in a news release. “This new H-E-B will feature a brand new Flaming Bird Grill, an in-store dining experience with comfortable seating for 48 people; free Wi-Fi; and a community hub space where community events and entertainment can be hosted.”
Jones said the store will open in the fall of this year and will employ about 400 people. She confirmed H-E-B will close not only the campus-area store, but also another at South Valley Mills Drive and Dutton Avenue, across from Floyd Casey Stadium. They will close around the time of the new store’s opening.
Both will be sold. Speculation has begun that Baylor would consider acquiring the building near campus.
“As far as whether the university has any interest in that site, I don’t know, so I would have no comment,” Fogleman told the Tribune-Herald.
H-E-B began collecting land for its new store in 2011, when it acquired and demolished the old University Middle School and bought houses and businesses nearby, piecing together an 11-acre site bounded by Bagby Avenue, Interstate 35 and South Valley Mills Drive.
“The unique property in the heart of Waco will allow easy access and will double the square footage of the two closing stores, while bringing 175 new jobs,” Jones said in a statement. “All partners (employees) will transfer to the new store or to other stores in the Waco area.”
Many features of the new Plus store mirror those at the H-E-B on Hewitt Drive and the store at Wooded Acres Drive and Bosque Boulevard. But fresh touches include the Flaming Bird Grill, which will serve a variety of fresh whole chicken grilled over a flame.
The produce department will include an avocado bar, where employees will make guacamole fresh daily. And a “Good Living” department near the pharmacy will offer immunizations, health screenings and health management information.
Other sections include a full-service deli, cheese shop, bakery, floral department, a beer-and-wine shop, meat market and seafood department.
The electronics department will sell movies, video games, music and mobile devices. The Texas Backyard department will carry fresh plants, flowers, outdoor furniture and accessories. The store also will have a 14-pump fuel station and a car wash.
South Waco resident Joyce Dobbins, 61, said she spreads her shopping around and occasionally visits the H-E-B near Baylor.
As for the new H-E-B going up on South Valley Mills Drive, she said, “When it opens, I’ll be right there.”