MAYBE THE HARSHEST RESISTANCE Wawa has met lately concerns its most curious project, back in Millville, where it had its primordial days. Beginning in the 1800s in South Jersey, the Wood family at different times produced textiles, glass and ironworks.
“We joke that we used to make cannonballs and now we make meatballs,” Stoeckel says. The Woods built factories along Millville’s Maurice River and put in a dam that created Union Lake, New Jersey’s second largest, which the company owned until 1982. Wawa still owns 390 lakeside acres—about a mile of shoreline—and has been planning a massive real estate development. What is it—a Wawaland amusement park? No, mostly retail stores and gated residential communities. Wawa says it’s not getting into a new business, just trying to make use of this legacy land it’s owned forever by leasing it to developers.
Matt Blake, an environmentalist with the American Littoral Society, gave me a tour of the area. Union Lake is spectacular and peaceful, sparkling with the tea-colored water of the Pine Barrens.
“They’re talking about going in there and whacking this forest,” he said. “This is not about building a Wawa. This is about building a city within a city.” Blake was the most outspoken Wawa critic I’d come across. But later, prior to a hearing on the “Wawa tract,” he admitted he kind of likes its stores.
Think of the birders who set out at 6 a.m., he said. Without Wawa, “Where would they get their coffee?” Then he added, without a trace of sarcasm: “Thank God for Wawa.”