MIDDLE TOWNSHIP - Walmart is seeking local permission to expand its Middle Township store into a Supercenter, making it one of only three in South Jersey.

The company wants to expand by taking over an adjoining store in the strip mall and adding 30,000 new square feet for groceries. The union representing ShopRite in Middle Township is opposing the application before the township planning board.

A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

The mall was built in 2004, making Rio Grande the retail heart of Cape May County. Among the chain stores is Office Depot, Lowe's and Michael's. Walmart opened in 2007.

The shopping center opened with a supermarket, Stop & Shop, which closed in 2007.

Thomas Juliano, president of shopping-center owner Delco Development LLC, in Willingboro Township, said Stop & Shop in Rio Grande was a competitive store before it closed.

"It did very well. It didn't close for lack of business," he said.

South Jersey has seen a contraction in the grocery industry in the last five years. SuperFresh closed stores in Middle Township and Hammonton in 2011. Genuardi's stores in Egg Harbor Township and Barnegat Township, and a Pathmark supermarket in Egg Harbor Township, all closed in 2012.

Middle Township has several other grocery stores, including two Acmes and a Save-A-Lot in Rio Grande.

Meanwhile, Delco Development plans to build a stand-alone addition to the strip mall on Route 9 opposite Walmart that is home to Office Depot, among others. That building will offer space to West Marine and the state Department of Labor, he said.

Walmart is seeking site-plan approval along with variances for setbacks, parking and landscape buffers. The expansion calls for the construction of about 30,000 square feet of additional store space, said Walmart's East Coast spokesman Bill Wertz. The bigger store would require Walmart to hire an additional 75 to 90 associates in Middle Township.

Walmart plans to buy locally produced fruits and vegetables when in season, Wertz said.

"We're one of the biggest purchasers of U.S. goods, including produce, in the country," he said. "We make a point to find local produce in season."

The township's master plan calls for 4.5 spaces for every 1,000 feet of ground floor area. In Walmart's case, it would need 1,004 spaces. It has 836 now and is proposing to add 28 spaces. A parking study by McMahon Associates, of Yardville, Pa., found that even during the busy Labor Day weekend, customers occupied fewer than half of the available spaces.

United Food & Commercial Workers Local 152, a union based in Mays Landing that represents 15,000 employees at ShopRite and several other private employers, opposes the application, spokesman Gerald Chudoff said.

"Walmart is the biggest private employee in New Jersey with the most people on public assistance," Chudoff said.

Chudoff said any jobs created in Middle Township by the expansion will pay less than the existing supermarket jobs threatened by this increased competition.

Walmart's Wertz did not dispute that some of its associates receive public assistance. But he said that is to be expected of any large employer. The company's pay and benefits are competitive in the industry, he said.

"Public assistance is based on individual need. We pay competitively in every community where we operate. We offer health insurance to associates and a 401(k) plan and associate discounts," he said.

Walmart is represented by Nehmad, Perillo & Davis, based in Egg Harbor Township, which did not return calls seeking comment.

Locally, Walmart has superstores in Vineland and Hamilton Township.

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