SEBRING — The much anticipated Wawa stations moved closer to breaking ground in the last week, most noticeably with land clearing at one site.
Work crews on backhoes cleared trees Monday from the south Sebring site at the corner of U.S. 27 and Highlands Avenue, on which the company closed the sale last Thursday, according to their Realtor.
Greg Karlson of Advantage Realty #1 posted on social media Friday that the sale closed on the second of three sites for future Wawa stations.
Backhoes continued clearing old buildings at the south Sebring site through the week.
The other two sites are on the northwest corner of U.S. 27 and Dal Hall Boulevard in Lake Placid and on the northeast corner of U.S. 27 and Valerie Boulevard, across from Sun ‘N Lake of Sebring Special Improvement District.
Karlson said via phone Thursday that the Lake Placid site, formerly Bank of America, still needs to close, but there’s nothing holding it up, not even talks with Highlands County’s Engineering and Planning Departments on dedicating frontage for use as future right of way, should adjacent roads need to be widened.
“They’re just taking their time,” Karlson said. “There’s nothing they’re waiting on that I am aware of on that piece.”
Plus, he said, it’s always way more complicated to buy developed land for redevelopment, given multiple owners, tenants and utility easements.
The Valerie Boulevard site, he said, had multiple sellers throughout the 2.3-acre parcel. It closed on Sept. 5, 2018, for $2.2 million, total.
A church there will have to relocate, Karlson said, as will a tenant at the Highlands Avenue site.
The Highlands site, he said, also had multiple sellers over a total of 2.7 acres. It closed March 7 with a total sale price of $1.93 million.
On March 5, the Highlands County Board of County Commission vacated utility easements on private properties around the U.S. 27 and Valerie Boulevard site.
The company has already worked with County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. on the proposed ingress/egress for the Highlands Avenue site, as Howerton’s staff is in final design stages for the upgrade of Highlands Avenue into the south-end of the four-lane Sebring Parkway.
“They want the prime areas, to generate the most traffic,” Karlson said. “They really did their homework.”
The south Sebring spot will have traffic from the Parkway, and the north Sebring site will have more residential growth, he said.
When asked why Wawa didn’t look at a site across from Lakeview Road and Raceway gasoline, Karlson said Wawa, especially in rural areas, prefers a corner that is “happening now” with an established working traffic light.
“The convenience store people don’t want to be the destination,” Karlson said. “They want a place where people are going somewhere else and can stop along the way.”
With the prices they paid, Karlson said, “Why would they not take the best (site)?”
He said Wawa and other stores are trying to reach a “critical mass” to get the most business they can from relatively untapped markets like Sebring.
Pennsylvania-based Wawa, a popular gasoline, convenience and sandwich/coffee shop, has made inroads into south central Florida over the last six to seven years.
Described in July 2012 by a Lake Wales official as “the Publix of convenience stores,” Wawa had 600 stores nationwide at that time, mostly in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware and other mid-Atlantic states.
A Wawa official announced then they had just opened a sixth store outside the gates of SeaWorld Orlando.
Now, the company has 150 stores in Florida, not including the three planned for Highlands County.
Other nearby stores include one in Lake Wales on U.S. 27 at Chalet Suzanne Road, in Winter Haven on U.S. 17 (Third Street SW) at Avenue Q SE, in Auburndale on Havendale Boulevard and in Lakeland just off Interstate 4.