By Tony E. Windsor

News of a proposal to build a Wawa convenience store in Laurel has resulted in a great deal of emotion and concern being expressed on social media over speculation about the future of the Laurel Junction Flea Market (formerly Bargain Bill’s).

Since owned by the George Purnell family in the 1970s, the flea market has transitioned from a large open, dirt parking lot with outside tables, to include 100 outside vendors, a building with 60 additional inside flea market stores, upstairs antique shops, a ground floor restaurant with open seating, a produce market and adjoining storefronts facing northbound U.S. 13.

 Recently, the Laurel Planning and Zoning Committee met to review preliminary site plans for a proposed Wawa convenience store and gas pumps to be located fronting U.S. 13 on the Laurel Junction property. This is being proposed by developer Diamond State Management.

The Laurel Junction complex has been up for sale for 12 years; however, thus far only two portions of the property have either been sold, or otherwise designated for use by a business other than the flea market. One is the Burger King restaurant on the corner of U.S. 13 and Sussex 9, and the other is a 10 acre parcel on the rear of the property being developed by Delaware Self Storage for storage units.

When news broke last week that Laurel’s P&Z Committee was reviewing preliminary site plans for a new Wawa on the Laurel Junction property, social media broke out with a significant response from area citizens. While not all were condemning the concept, the majority of responses relayed less than enthusiastic sentiments.

Comments included:

• I use to love going there with my dad when I was little. That place holds a spot in my heart it was almost like a tradition. We would go every weekend. Now my dad has passed I still go. It’s a sad thing to see a place that had been there forever get torn down just to put a Wawa there. All so Wawa and Royal Farms can compete.

• Laurel already has at least seven gas stations/convenience stores. Laurel needs something different!

• So sad we love getting tables outside for the flea market.

• I remember going there every weekend, years ago, loved getting produce in summer time.

• As long as it’s been there it would be a shame to see it gone so many ppl [people] go there to find a little bit of everything plus there’s a Royal Farms across the road and a Wawa up the road in Delmar. I guess when it comes to money and the Price Is Right ppl would sell their soul to the devil.

• Well y’all get ready for another tax increase to pay for more policemen

In all, one post left on Facebook by an area television news station garnered 307 emotive responses, 180 written comments and 290 “shares.”

Laurel Town Manager Jamie Smith said it was important to keep in mind that it is not required for the town to approve the construction of a convenience store on the Laurel Junction property. The developer is free to build without the town’s permission as long as in doing so they build in compliance with town codes and receive all necessary state permits, including the Department of Transportation.

“The developer chose to bring the preliminary site plan before the town, it was not required of them to do so,” Smith said. “A new convenience store, like Wawa, would not be proposing a new commercial use, or be in conflict with the town’s zoning regulations. The developer is free to locate a Wawa on that property because there was a convenience store with gas pumps there previously.”

Early on, developers discussed with town officials a concept that included a Wawa, a fast food restaurant and a car wash to be built on the property. Smith said the P&Z meeting on Feb. 14 only reviewed the Wawa and gas pumps and gave no information about the other two entities.

“Planning and Zoning asked that the developers bring back a final site plan for its review and approval once they received all necessary state permits. Because the developers chose to move through the review process, Planning and Zoning will issue a decision regarding approval of the site plan, but again, it is not required,” Smith said.

The town manager went on to explain that should the developer have plans in the future regarding either the fast food restaurant or the car wash, it will be required that they bring these preliminary site plans before the town’s P&Z Committee. “These would represent two types of businesses that have not operated on that parcel previously, so it would require Planning and Zonings review and approval,” she said.

Responding to the many comments on social media about the proposed Wawa store, Laurel Mayor John Shwed said he would look forward to patronizing a Wawa store. “I recognize that people may be upset about the possible future of the flea market property, but that property has been for sale for several years,” he said. “Having a developer purchase a portion of that property to build a Wawa is part of our free enterprise system. The United States is the greatest country in the world largely because of our system of free enterprise.”

The Wawa project still must secure state permits and propose a final site plan for the town. If the developer decides to move forward on the project, there will need to be settlement reached on the sale of the property before any site work can begin. 

The extent of demolition of existing buildings on the Junction property, or the impact on the flea market and its existing businesses as the result of the proposed Wawa has not been determined thus far.