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Store to provide oasis in food desert

Construction of a BJ's Wholesale Club is under

Construction of a BJ's Wholesale Club is under way on the 10-acre site of the former Bellport Outlet Center, off Sunrise Highway, near Station Road in North Bellport. (Dec. 31, 2013) Credit: James Carbone

A big-box grocery that is expected to add more than 100 jobs in North Bellport and give residents a viable supermarket in a food desert could open late this year.

While one civic leader questioned the rationale for a members-only business, Brookhaven Town officials, homeowners and the Bellport Chamber of Commerce view the opening of the 87,000-square-foot BJ's Wholesale Club as a marquee event that will boost the local economy.

"This is a food desert. The grocery will give us groceries where groceries aren't always easy to get," said Jason Neal, 38, a North Bellport resident. "This is a historically disadvantaged and underserved community. When there are opportunities in this area, we need to take advantage."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on Tuesday that North Bellport is considered a food desert, where people have difficulty accessing healthy, affordable food.

Large swaths exist in Suffolk, officials say, with areas such as Mastic having food-access issues.

Developer Portwood LLC filed the application for the BJ's in February, town records show. It will sit on the 10-acre site of the former Bellport Outlet Center, off Sunrise Highway, near Station Road.

Construction began in October and should be completed by midsummer, said Christopher W. Robinson, president of Huntington-based RMS Engineering, which is building the store.

Town Councilwoman Connie Kepert, who represents the district but is involved in a voting dispute that has left November's election unresolved, said residents support the store despite heavy opposition in past years to the threat of over-commercial development.

"It's affordable shopping in the area, and it will create jobs for an area definitely in need of jobs," Kepert said.

BJ's spokesman Louis Manoussos said the store would add at least 100 jobs, including clerks and cashiers, when it opens, possibly between midsummer and late this year.

"It's going to be good. It can't be bad, that's for sure," he said.

John Rogers, president of the Greater Bellport Coalition -- made up of about 10 groups in Bellport and East Patchogue -- said the organization has worked with Brookhaven since 2006 on a community development plan.

While he described the BJ's as a "destination store" that "is a welcomed addition because of the [job] opportunities," he was not sure North Bellport consumers will shop there.

"BJ's is a membership club. I don't know how many people from the neighborhood are going to become members. I'm looking at about 130 jobs being brought to the area," Rogers said. Membership can cost $50-$100, according to the company website.

Other residents said that while a Stop & Shop grocery and a few bodegas are roughly two miles away, many must commute there to purchase groceries. "We have to travel to Patchogue or Medford. To have something close will be better for us," said Neal, also a member of the coalition.

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