Jay Wegman grew up in Greece and his family’s business is based there, too.
So, he would often stop by Elm Ridge Center, a shopping plaza on West Ridge Road about 3 miles west of The Mall at Greece Ridge.
“At one time, it was a thriving plaza that we would visit multiple times a week,” said Wegman, vice president of operations for Wegman Companies, a real estate development firm unrelated to the grocery store chain. “And then it just went downhill.”
In fact, by May 2019, three decades into its existence, there was almost no place left to shop. Three major tenants — Sam’s Club, OfficeMax and Tops Friendly Markets — were gone, as were most of the smaller retailers.
Now, less than three years after Wegman Companies bought most of the property, it’s 95 percent occupied, and talks are underway with a local Irish bar and restaurant to fill one of two remaining vacancies.
'We knew it was a risk'
Wegman Companies, founded by Jay’s father, Phil, 50 years ago, mostly focuses on senior and multi-family housing developments. But the sorry state of Elm Ridge Center, which Jay was reminded of almost daily while out and about in his hometown, got him thinking. And when an opportunity to buy the vacant Sam’s Club emerged, he jumped at it.
Initially, the thought was to turn it into a self-storage facility because there are a few such places in the Wegman Companies portfolio. However, to reverse the plaza’s fortunes, the town of Greece changed zoning to allow for light manufacturing, so Wegman Companies found itself competing for the Sam’s Club space with Paneffort, a Rochester-based business that makes personal protective equipment.
Ultimately, Paneffort decided it would rather be a tenant than a property owner, and its willingness to sign a lease with Wegman Companies “took 132,000 square feet out of the risk pool,” Jay said. That led Wegman Companies in early 2021 to buy most of the rest of the plaza, excluding a stand-alone Walmart and some other outbuildings, including one that houses Red Fedele’s Brook House restaurant.
Still, “We knew it was a risk,” Wegman said of purchasing around 335,000 square feet from a Dallas-based company that bought Elm Ridge Plaza at auction. “It was at a time where we were dealing with COVID, and the online shopping obviously had taken off.” Yet, they still felt there was a market for brick-and-mortar businesses and quickly learned they were right.
Mix of tenants is 'why it's working'
A buildout of the vacant OfficeMax lured Cheer Athletics, a national chain of cheerleading and tumbling training centers. Bert’s Bikes & Fitness, a western New York-based chain of bicycle shops, signed on to another large space. “That was a big name to bring in, so that was exciting for us,” Wegman said.
Local outfits, including Goods Galore Overstock and Fastlane Apparel & Accessories, joined the mix, too.
More than $7 million in plaza upgrades went a long way toward enticing prospective tenants.
“The very first thing we did is we paved over 1 million square feet of asphalt,” Wegman said. “We milled and repaved the entire (parking lot). That was a sore point for people, and it was a sore point for the town of Greece. Once we repaved, people felt like, OK, these guys are serious.”
Other work included replacing plaza sidewalks, installing a new roof, redoing the façade and adding flower beds and other features to the courtyard area near food businesses Cotoletta (a local Italian restaurant that opened early this year) and Bozza Pasta (a local pasta-making company that moved to Elm Ridge from a smaller space in Hilton in August).
Food is a big focus at Elm Ridge, Wegman told the Democrat and Chronicle earlier this year. “It’s what brings people together. It draws people to an area and that helps the other surrounding businesses as well.”
Just as important, though, is a good mix of tenants, he said recently. “That’s why it’s working.”
In addition to the others mentioned, there are more food businesses, as well as beauty-related businesses (a few of which have been there for many years) and workout gyms.
There is a periodontal practice, Beach Perio Impants and Med Spa, formal wear shop Tania Casini, a self-serve pet wash place and an auto detailing shop. Monroe County’s WIC Program (a nutrition program for women, infants and children in need) is based at Elm Ridge. And Nova Trampoline Park is set to open in the next two weeks in a portion of the old Tops space.
Which is not to say it’s time to kick back and relax.
“We always need more tenants,” Wegman said with a laugh. “Even when you’re full, you want a backlog.”
'It's been a huge win for us'
However, the ones in place don’t sound like they’re going anywhere.
Bobby Follett, owner of Goods Galore, which buys and sells overstock items at deep discounts, grew up in Greece. As a young person, he worked at the Sam’s Club in Elm Ridge, so in 2021 when he decided to move his retail operation from a location on Spencerport Road in Gates to a larger space, he looked toward the plaza because, like Jay Wegman, he saw the possibilities.
Two years on, the experience of being there has been “absolutely amazing,” Follett said. “The traffic has improved, and the maintenance done is phenomenal. If we’ve had issues with anything, they take care of it right away. It’s a been a huge win for us. It’s been awesome.”
Fast Lane Apparel & Accessories, which creates custom clothing and accessories for corporations and school sports teams, moved to Elm Ridge in February from a smaller spot on North Clinton Avenue in Rochester. “We haven’t even finished our showroom yet because we’ve been so busy,” said owner Dan Lane, also a Greece native and current Hilton resident.
He credits Wegman for much of that early success. “He has been driving a lot of people my way. He’s a huge advocate for businesses in the plaza,” Lane said, adding that Wegman also patronizes them. “I see him working out at Atlas Gym.”
Wegman Companies has put a lot into the Elm Ridge revival. But, “The gut feeling was we knew it was going to be worth it,” Wegman said. “Otherwise, we wouldn’t have gotten into it.”
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Elm Ridge Center in Greece NY brought back to nearly full occupancy