HARVARD -- Survey results showed that residents are really into the idea of having a grocery store in town, according to Economic Development Committee Chairman Elaine Lazarus.

And contrary to previous assumptions, there are stores that might be willing to come.

The subject came up at a forum the EDC held recently at Volunteers Hall to update townspeople on their progress and gather public input. Only a handful attended.

Listing the committee's accomplishments over the past year, Lazarus said the EDC had been developing "working relationships" with businesses in the commercial district (Ayer Road) and as a result of their input had worked with the Planning Board to change signage rules that business owners said were too restrictive.

Another plus she cited was a legislative change allowing the town to join with Devens in its economic development district. EDC also looked into the "fiscal viability" of hooking up to Devens water and sewer lines to help spur business development in the C-district.

The EDC is currently preparing a white paper that will sum up the pros and cons, Lazarus said, including infrastructure challenges and proposed regulation and permit changes.

Any vision to expand commercial development on Ayer Road, the town's only commercially zoned district, hinges on whether town residents want it and to what extent and the sort of businesses they would like to attract. A grocery store, for example.

Considerations for the area chains they talked to - Hannaford, Donelan's and Roche Brothers- included traffic, available lot sizes and infrastructure accommodations. Contrary to the prevailing assumption that such stores had ruled out Harvard, mostly because of insufficient traffic, the committee came out of the talks with a different view.

"We learned there's an interest..." Lazarus said.

More so because of traffic coming from Route 2 than in town, however. "They (the stores) were looking for some traffic from Harvard, too, she said. Apparently the stores are seeking quality as well as quantity in the shoppers they could expect to attract.

All things considered, commuter traffic would not be enough to establish a new location.

One of the stores noted that it wouldn't want to draw business away from an existing branch in another community where Harvard residents shop, such as Acton, Lazarus continued. But all three said they wanted a residential base they could count on. If things got to the planning stage, a traffic analysis would be done, she said.

Other somewhat surprising facts the EDCs research revealed also challenged previous assumptions. For example, they learned that even large grocery chains build small stores. The 30,000 square foot "norm" isn't the only model, and in this instance a "small concept store" would be the likely choice, Lazarus said. And there's a likely market for it, too.

When it came to infrastructure, or lack thereof, the stores said that access to municipal water and sewer is a plus, but not a deal breaker. Septic systems were not a drawback, Lazarus said, but the size of the system they could build under current town zoning would be a problem.

And the grocery stores would rather be anchors than stand alones. "They prefer being with other retailers, such as a pharmacy," Lazarus said. Asked if the EDC had talked to any drug stores, she said they had not done so yet.

The Hannaford supermarket (formerly Victory Market) in Ayer is "a bit of a deterrent" to other chains moving in, she said, noting that another store's representative even indicated that Hannaford might consider moving to Harvard instead of its Ayer location.

What about Devens?

Citing its charge to enhance the C-district and generate revenue for the town, easing the tax burden on homeowners, Lazarus said the uncertainty over Devens disposition shouldn't be a primary focus for economic planners. "These are two different markets," she said. The question then becomes, how to balance business development in the two "very close" areas. 

Q&A

Stu Sklar, who lives in the southern part of town, said that while some of his neighbors would be excited about the prospect, north Harvard residents might react differently to the notion of a grocery store in the area. "I recall push back when it came up before," he said. Mostly, concerns were about increased traffic.

Another resident underscored Sklar's point. Those are the folks who would be most impacted, he said, including Glenview Drive residents and other Ayer Road abutters.

EDC members agreed there were communication issues and they aim to do a better job getting residents' input and spreading the word. After all, the group is only in its first year, one member pointed out.

Given that current town zoning created the Ayer Road commercial strip, another question the EDC has been mulling is whether it would be better to have a "high density grouping" of retail stores versus parceling development out along the corridor.

Planning Board member Tim Schmoyer cited the 2002 Master Plan, which set retail goals for the Ayer Road area that haven't been met. The Steering Committee, as part of its phase one effort to update the plan for the next ten years, sought resident's input and found that more than half of respondents wanted restaurants and a grocery store.

Jim Breslauer, of Poor Farm Road, said he served on that committee. Personally, he has no objection to siting a "small grocery store" in town, he said, but if Harvard eventually takes back jurisdiction of parts of Devens, then it might be better to build a larger store there. "That would be my preference," he said.

As a member of the Conservation Commission, he has concerns about wetlands in some of the Ayer Road areas being eyed for commercial development, he said.

Lazarus said the committee knew there would be up hill climbs ahead. "That's why we focused on one area...so many challenges," she said.

Given its mission, another EDC member asked the obvious next question. "If not a grocery store, then what?" "It's still a big charter for us," he said. The mix along Ayer Road now is far from themed, ranging from an animal hospital to an antique shop. At this point, they're looking at anything viable, he said.