After more than a year and a half in development, it's finally time to start blowing up party balloons and hanging the grand opening banner when the first of three Wawa stores open in West Pasco.
The chain's Port Richey convenience store and gas station at U.S. 19 and Ridge Road will open Feb. 20. The fanfare at Store 5108 will include a 10 a.m. ribbon cutting.
A New Port Richey-area store, at the intersection of Ridge and Little roads, will follow on Feb. 27. Then the Holiday-area store, at 4026 U.S. 19 near S.R. 54, will open its doors March 6.
Port Richey officials have begun receiving invitations to the Feb. 20 opening, City Manager Tom O'Neill said.
"I'm excited about it," O'Neill said Friday. "I've heard (Wawa) referred to as a Panera Bread with gas." Their sandwiches are "all the freshest of the fresh," he added.
Since the Port Richey store is at one of the busiest crossroads in Pasco, O'Neill predicts Wawa will lure plenty of customers. A Walmart Supercenter is at the same corner.
Wawa, based in Chester Heights, Pa., has been migrating south like its namesake. Wawa is an Ojibwa Indian name for the Canadian goose.
The chain owns and operates about 570 locations, primarily in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The goal is for 100 Florida stores within five years.
Wawa first began developing the Port Richey location in June 2011. The firm hired a contractor to tear down the Denny's restaurant that previously occupied the site.
"I'm encouraged by the commercial investment and I look for more to come," O'Neill said. The city manager said economic trends seem to be turning positive.
The city is shopping for buyers for three key parcels in its waterfront district, close to U.S. 19 and Grand Boulevard.
There has been an "offer tendered for one" of the parcels on the Pithlachascotee River, O'Neill said, adding he does not know the status of the possible deal.
Wawa has invested about $900,000 to build the store, O'Neill wrote in a recent email to city council members and city officials.
"I think it is a good sign to see commercial investment in the City of Port Richey of this magnitude," O'Neill wrote in a message. "Having been from this area, I haven't heard too much about Wawa but I do welcome the commercial construction activity and the assessed valuation increase in the property tax rolls."
"The council should also be aware that Wawa is planning to re-stripe Richey Drive from Wilkens Street to U.S. 19 at their expense," O'Neill concluded.
City leaders will get a sneak peek at the store on Feb. 19. The grand opening the next day will include remarks by Wawa officials, a parade of Wawa history, a hoagie building contest, food sampling, games, giveaways and more.
Wawa Food Markets typically carry more than 6,000 items, according to the company. The chain has many house brands, such as built-to-order hoagies, freshly-brewed coffee, the "Sizzli" hot breakfast sandwich and Wawa Wraps, along with fresh produce.
The company employs more than 18,000 associates, who own a 29-percent stake through the firm's stock.