Stewart’s Shops considers spots in both Berne and Knox for new store

The Enterprise — Marcello Iaia

The Stewart's Shop in Altamont is open late at night.

HILLTOWNS — Stewart’s Shops, a convenience store and gas station chain, may have a new location in either Berne or Knox by next year. The location could be announced before Memorial Day. Each of the towns’ supervisors is confident that his town will get the spot.

Chuck Marshall, a spokesman for Stewart’s Shops, said that the company is actively looking at properties in the towns of Berne and Knox. The company is also working with both Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier and Knox Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis.

Lefkaditis wants to sell a building he owns in the Knox hamlet to Stewart’s. And, although Crosier says a Stewart’s in Berne would be a boon to the local general store, the owner of Fox Creek Market says it would put him out of business.

Stewart’s, owned by the Dake family, was started in Ballston Spa in the mid-20th Century, and has since expanded to locations throughout upstate New York and Vermont. However, no stores have yet to be set up in the Hilltowns, instead encircling the Helderbergs with locations in Schoharie, Middleburgh, Greenville, Ravena, New Scotland, Clarksville, and Altamont.

Marshall said the new store would be around 3,500 square feet in area with three gas pumps. The store would provide around 275 hours of payroll a week, meaning enough to employ almost seven people for 40 hours a week, but Marshall said that it would not be necessarily divided that way.

“We look at how many hours are worked, not part-time/full-time,” he said.

The company is expected to announce the chosen location by next month. Marshall said that it would likely take six months to a year to get the necessary permits and approvals, construct the building, and open the store.

In Berne: Market crushed?

Crosier said that he had met with Marshall and Lefkaditis about a year ago.

“When we first met with Stewart’s, we weren’t on their radar,” he said, adding that he kept in touch in the hopes of bringing the company to Berne.

Because of the zoning in the town, one area would be able to have a gas station: the sole Traditional Mixed Use II District is across from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo School District campus, and is encompassed by the historic hamlet district.

In the past, Stewart’s has dropped plans to build in Berne partly because of strict design standards in the historic hamlet district.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Enjoying the weather, Customers at Fox Creek Market in Berne leave with sodas in hand.

 

Crosier brushed off these past difficulties, saying that the company knows about the requirements and is willing to comply.

“If you look at most of their shops now, they have some architectural style,” he said. “It doesn’t cost a lot to do this type of stuff.”

Zoning requirements in the Traditional Mixed Use Districts are set up to be a compromise between business and residential and to preserve historic structures in the hamlet. Parking areas are not allowed in the front of buildings, except under specific conditions in which one row of parking may exist if buffered by vegetation or trees from the street. Building materials must be similar to other buildings in the area, such as clapboard or brick, and roofs must have a minimum pitch of five inches vertical for every horizontal foot. Gas pumps must be further than 20 feet from a side lot line or 35 feet from a street. Lighting fixtures must be no higher than 18 feet, and gas canopy lighting must not glare outside of the site.

Crosier is excited about the prospect of establishing a Stewart’s in town, saying that it will better the community by encouraging visitors to the area, who may be interested in places like the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area or Switzkill Farm, but need amenities or gasoline to travel there.

Councilman Joseph Golden said it would be up to the town’s planning board to permit a store, as well as what the zoning laws will allow, should the company set up in Berne. Crosier had informed Golden a few days earlier, and he had already been aware that Stewart’s had had its eye on a new location for some time, Golden said. Councilman James Cooke spoke in an emailed statement of the past conflict in Berne between some Berne residents in favor of having the store in town, and some — particularly in the Berne hamlet — objecting to it. He added he hoped the location would “cause little or no strife.” Berne board members generally vote as a unit.

“The more people you attract, the more you do better,” Crosier said of local businesses.

Crosier also stated that having a Stewart’s Shop in town would help local businesses as well, contending that those stopping by to get milk or gasoline at a Stewart’s might see a place like Fox Creek Market and stop in.

Mike Cecunjanin, an owner of Fox Creek Market, disagrees.

“Of course it’s going to affect us,” said Cecunjanin. “We’re a small business selling the same things that they do.”

The family-run business sells items like pizza, ice cream, submarine sandwiches, and convenience-store products like bread and beverages. Cecunjanin said that it would be hard to do anything different to compete with a larger chain — his store is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

“We’re here almost 24/7,” he said. Stewart’s Shops, while typically open between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m., has some locations open 24 hours. Berne’s zoning law states that the zoning board of appeals can rule to limit hours of operation for a gas station.

Stewart’s Shops, while well-known for its ice cream served alongside convenience-store items, has as of recent been trying to serve more pre-packaged meals and items like sandwiches and pizza.

“We cannot compete with big companies,” said Cecunjanin.

He noted that his family keeps prices as low as they can, cutting back on expenses by keeping their operation family-run; he and his two sons and two daughters are the only employees.

Cecunjanin said a location in Knox would not be much better.

“We’re just three miles away in Knox,” he said.

 

The Enterprise — Michael Koff
The Knox Country Store: Knox Town Supervisor Vasilios Lefkaditis wants to sell the site of the former general store, which he has rebuilt, to Stewart’s Shops. 

 

In Knox: Conflict of interest?

According to Lefkaditis, there is only one viable location in Knox: the now-defunct general store that he owns and rebuilt, located in what is currently the only business district in Knox.

Lefkaditis said that he has had talks with Stewart’s Shops before he was elected town supervisor in 2015. He had purchased what was formerly the Knox Country Store some time after it closed in 2010, but has yet to rent it to businesses as he had intended. Lefkaditis said at a recent town board meeting that he had invested “six figures” in the property.

Lefkaditis said he would sell the building to Stewart’s Shops, not rent it, saying that the company prefers to buy.

“The town desperately needs it,” said Lefkaditis, of the convenience store. “We’ve got to drive five to 10 miles for a dozen eggs or a gallon of gas.”

He noted that this would become more of a problem as people in town age.

The process of approving a store would be overseen by the planning board as well as the building and zoning department, but would not have to go before the town board, said Lefkaditis. He added that he would recuse himself if for some reason a decision did have to be made by the town board.

While it could not be determined if Lefkaditis would be would be legally prohibited from selling his property to Stewart’s, according to a representative from the New York Department of State, the supervisor is subject to a state conflicts-of-interest law, which prohibits town employees from having an interest in any contract with their municipality over which they might have control. The law also states the town board must have a code of ethics established to consult in matters of potential conflicts of interest, to determine if a provision of the code has been violated or if a town employee must simply recuse him or herself when discussing or voting on related matters.

Lefkaditis earlier voted as a town board member against proposed noise and light ordinances.

Knox’s zoning laws, while less stringent than Berne’s on a building’s appearance, require that gas stations be on lots of 30,000 square feet or more, with 150 feet of frontage; fuel pumps be no closer than 50 feet from a side lot and no closer than 35 feet from a street; and access drives cannot be within 200 feet of a public place like a library, church, park, or fire station, unless a street wider than 50 feet is in between.

Lefkaditis had hoped to establish a gas station in previous years, but the 142-square-foot frontage at the Knox Country Store did not meet the zoning requirements, and companies were uninterested.

Lefkaditis’s property consists of 1.5 acres, or just over 65,00 square feet, and is valued at $65,000 with a taxable value of $40,300, according to Albany County assessment rolls.

The business district currently has no businesses in it. Meanwhile, the town is looking at possibly creating three new business districts.

The four Knox council members have often voted on controversial issues, 4 to 1, against the supervisor.

The four were mostly unaware that Lefkaditis was working with Stewart’s Shops. Councilman Dennis Barber, while in favor of having a Stewart’s in town, was surprised by the news, which he read in The Enterprise online.

“They’ve always said they would never come up here,” Barber said of the company.

Councilman Earl Barcomb was also not aware of it, but said that the supervisor had been in touch with Stewart’s Shops as a business owner before he was elected supervisor. He added that he would be in favor of what the taxpayers want, but “the devil’s in the details.”

Councilman Daniel Hanley said that Lefkaditis had mentioned on the side at last month’s town board meeting that he had been speaking with Stewart’s. Hanley said he assumed Lefkaditis had meant that he had been working with the company on a personal matter, in his role as a business owner rather than in town government.

Hanley felt that there would not be a conflict of interest so long as Stewart’s was only looking to build in the already existing business district, but that, if they were also looking at the potential business districts that are up for debate, it would become a conflict.

He otherwise would be in favor of a Stewart’s Shop in either Berne or Knox, saying that it seems to be what most Knox residents want, but he would know more if the issue went further along in town government.

Councilwoman Amy Pokorny said she had not heard about the proposal for Stewart’s to come to Knox. She said it would be hard for her to speak on it now, because she was not aware of all of the issues, but would be concerned about small businesses like Fox Creek Market.

Pokorny said that one of the things to be considered for a business like Stewart’s Shops or for the new business districts is the lack of a public sewage or water service in the town. Because of the town’s karst geology — bedrock such as limestone with cracks and holes in it — there is a possibility for pollutants such as from a septic system to leach into well water, she said.

Pokorny and her husband, Russell, who is the town’s assessor, owned the Knox Country Store for about six years; they sold it to Joe and Marie Best in 2003. Pokorny said that, while she would like any place in town where residents can meet, there can be distinct differences between privately-owned stores and corporate-owned stores.

The Pokornys used their business as a venue for concerts, parties, and even tournaments for the card game “Magic: The Gathering.” The general store also served ice cream and lunch items, and offered services such as film development, video rentals, and faxing.

“We tried to provide as many services as you could think of,” she said.

Pokorny said a corporate-owned store could still offer a community space, but “it would depend on the company and how flexible they can be.”


Updated on April 11, 2017: Responses from Berne and Knox town board members were added along with comments from the New York State Department of State.

More Hilltowns News

  • At Knox’s upcoming meeting on Jan. 1, the town board — with newly elected members that ran with the Republican-backed supervisor — will be selecting a new town attorney, a new zoning board chair, and possibly several other positions. The supervisor has said he has received over 20 applications so far.

  • A Freedom of Information Law request made by The Enterprise has revealed blank building inspection reports in the town of Knox going back as far as 2014 and stretching into 2017.

  • The town supervisor said Rensselaerville is left with three options now: choose its own judge, have the state select a replacement, or wait until November.