East Lyme Costco welcomes thousands at grand opening

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East Lyme — A smattering of "Costco's biggest fans" were waiting at the door at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, ready with giant shopping carts and piles of reusable bags.

Costco Wholesale Corp.’s first outlet in eastern Connecticut celebrated its grand opening with a ribbon-cutting attended by local politicians, store managers and employees, and of course, eager shoppers.

Though not as mad as the frenzy that made headlines in August when Costco’s first China outlet opened in Shanghai, where crazed customers fought and elbowed each other for store items such as packets of roast chicken, the first East Lyme customers instead mostly gawked at and leisurely strolled through the store’s sky-high aisles, which were filled with items such as 93-inch plush teddy bears, puffer jackets and buckets of protein powder.

And rather than racing to fill their carts with the best deals, many patrons took Thursday morning as an opportunity to orient themselves in the 158,000-square-foot store, stopping to taste-test the dozens of food samplings available, ranging from marinara sauce on pasta to cubes of cheese stuck with toothpicks, turning their trip into an hourslong affair.

Describing herself as a “lifelong Costco shopper,” as well as one of the chain's biggest fans, Julie Souin of Cranston, R.I., said she’s been readying herself for Thursday’s opening for months now with her friend John Klinefelter of Niantic, with whom she works. “We’ve been on this for years. We knew this was happening even before they broke ground.”

Souin, deprived of her favorite store since moving to Rhode Island, said the hourlong drive was "more than worth it" while standing in front of 65-inch flat screen TVs displaying high-definition images of bumble bees landing on pollen-dusted flowers.

“It’s not that much different than BJs, but it’s just better,” Souin said. “There’s more food selection. Everything is good. All the food is good. Better selection of everything. I don’t know what it is, but you want everything. You look around and everything is tempting.”

For Olga Walker and her husband, Wayne, of East Lyme, Thursday’s kickoff was an opportunity to be part of the opening buzz, as well as explore what will become their regular shopping spot.

“We wanted to be one of the first,” Wayne said, while explaining that the couple signed up for the executive membership plan months ago after visiting a Costco with their son in North Carolina. “We don’t know yet what we want to buy, but we are going to see what’s here.”

Raymond Laufer of Salem said East Lyme’s branch will now provide him a more convenient shopping location after he said he’s been traveling to a Costco store in Orange — "65 miles away" from his home — for the last 10 years.

Besides signing up for his membership months ago, Laufer said he prepared for his opening-day shopping trip by going online beforehand to look up the store’s best deals.

“I’m gonna buy some meat, some bakery goods, some fruit, stuff like that,” Laufer said. “The produce here is very good.”

Costco, known for its meats and produce, as well as low-priced electronics, sells discounted bulk quantities of merchandise to club members who pay an annual membership fee. Costco has hundreds of branches worldwide, according to its website.

The company’s East Lyme location, right off Interstate 95's Exit 74, is the seventh branch to open in Connecticut and will serve customers throughout the eastern half of the state, as well as those living in Rhode Island, which does not yet have its own branch. The East Lyme store hired "around 200" employees by Thursday's opening, according to a news release.  

The store, which offers more than just food but also optical, hearing aid and prescription services, as well as a separate liquor department and an 18-pump gas station, among other amenities, remained busy throughout Thursday. By 9 a.m., its 680-spot parking lot was mostly filled, and by 3 p.m., it was nearly packed, with thousands of people beginning to stop in after work.

“We’re expecting hundreds of new signups by the end of today and 3,000 more by the end of this weekend,” said Patrick Townsley, a marketing manager who came from Maryland to help with East Lyme’s opening this week and who was cheerfully greeting a steady stream of customers as they walked through the door.

According to the store’s membership manager, Sal Calvanese, East Lyme’s Costco already had received more than 4,500 new membership signups before Thursday’s opening, and by 2 p.m. had received an additional 200. He described Thursday's turnout as a "steady stream," with crowds getting larger and larger as the day went by. Calvanese said the goal was to see another 300 signups by the end of the day. His department will continue its membership efforts, with plans for pop-up signup opportunities at Mohegan Sun in coming weeks.

Both the town’s zoning and building officials, Bill Mulholland and Steve Way, also were present at Thursday’s opening, observing together the flow of customer traffic, taking in the scene while relishing over the fact that their work to help make the store come alive was finally done.

“It wasn’t easy. These bigger projects take time and it’s the little details that make it come together,” said Mulholland, who has worked closely with the developers for years, making sure zoning regulations were correctly followed.

“I had a tremendous amount of paperwork,” Way said, describing his busy weeks leading up to opening day. “Everything in here had to be tested by a third party — the concrete, the bolts, the nuts, the wires, the refrigeration — and I had to get all those final reports.”

“Literally in the last week I walked this entire place six times,” Way continued. “All around the outside, making sure all the doors opened right, nothing was blocking them. I walked the entire roof a couple times, making sure all the equipment was hooked up right, bolted down right. ... The big thing for me is making sure everything is safe.”

Developers broke ground in March and quickly moved to prepare 14.7 acres of land, installing underground pump-station and holding tank equipment, while also reconfiguring roads — causing some temporary strife among local drivers — throughout the Exit 74 interchange area to accommodate an expected higher amount of traffic with the store’s opening.

The store is part of a larger development plan known as Gateway Commons, which is being jointly developed by The Simon Konover Co. of West Hartford and KGI Properties of Providence. The project was approved by the town in 2015, but has been in the works for two decades.

The Costco store closes out the second phase of that plan, while developers are moving forward with constructing 120 condo-style rentals over the next year to complete an existing 280-unit residential development at Exit 73 known as The Sound at Gateway Commons.

For Nickerson, who was one of the first customers to check out Thursday and who made sure to buy his favorite items, such as peanut-butter-filled pretzel bites and protein powder, Costco’s opening was the long-awaited materialization of a development plan, he said, that has been years in the making.

“Twenty years ago, I was elected to the Zoning Commission for the first time and the first discussion I was in, we were talking about the development of this land. The very first discussion,” Nickerson said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “We are thrilled as a town to have Costco as a tenant here, as a thriving business in our town.”

Nickerson has said tax revenue generated from the Gateway Commons plan, once it's fully built, could amount to more than $2.5 million. The first phase of the Sound at Gateway Commons apartments generated more than $756,000 for the town in 2018, assessor Diane Vitagliano has said. Costco is expected to generate about $400,000 in taxes.

“What a great complement to downtown Niantic and the small business and shops this gives,” said state Sen. Paul Formica, who helped form Costco plans while he was the town’s first selectman. “This is a complement to that. We have a distinct personality downtown and this really creates a wonderful feel for East Lyme when you have now both the Flanders highway district and the downtown Niantic community.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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