LITCHFIELD — A steady stream of traffic passed by last week as Rick and Bobbi Gowell stood in the field that, by this time next year, should be home to the town’s only grocery store. The Gowells were anxious to talk about their plans for the store, but their conversation kept getting interrupted as they turned to wave at passersby who honked their horns in hello, one of whom, Rick Gowell said, was an uncle.

Litchfield, a town with fewer than 4,000 people, may seem an unlikely place to build a $3 million store, but the foundation of the Gowells’ confidence in the plan was on full display from that field. It’s not only the number of passing cars; it’s the connection to the people inside the cars and the family tradition that goes back nearly 40 years.

“They’re very well respected, and they care about the people in the community,” said Town Manager Trudy Lamoreau. “When you walk through the door, they know who you are. They are vested in the community. People feel that. It’s important to them.”

The Gowells are banking on that support, and it turns out so are the banks fronting the roughly $3.3 million the Gowells figure it will take to build the 15,500-square-foot store and parking lot with 50 spaces. Construction is set to begin this week.

The Gowells have crunched the numbers that came from a market analysis they had done a few years ago. It showed that 25,000 residents in Litchfield, Bowdoin, Richmond, Sabattus and South Monmouth live at least 10 miles away from the closest supermarket.

“If we don’t expand, someone’s going to come in and put a store here,” Rick Gowell said. “The banks won’t loan if the business isn’t there.”

But the Gowells’ confidence isn’t just based on theory. They see the proof of it every day in the packed parking lot and crowded aisles at their current business, Gowell’s Store, which is just a few hundred feet west on Richmond Road from the grocery store site. Business at Gowell’s, which sells meats and groceries in addition to convenience store items, is often so brisk that cars spill over the large parking lot and are forced across the street. The Gowells, who purchased the store from Rick Gowell’s father in 2006, say the only way to meet the growing demand is to create a dedicated grocery store. The plan is to turn Gowell’s Store into a straight convenience store. The Gowells plan to keep all of the employees currently on their payroll and hire at least 15 additional full-time workers.

“We’ve almost doubled our business since 2006, and that’s in a tough economy,” Rick Gowell said. “Things have really taken off.”

Lamoreau, a regular, is one of those customers who regularly has a hard time finding a place to park. The store is not only a draw for people who happen to be passing by, Lamoreau said, but it is a destination for those in the area who need groceries but are unprepared to make the trek to stores in Augusta, Gardiner or Lewiston.

“It’s unbelievable the way Gowell’s has taken off the last two or three years,” Lamoreau said. “People have been hoping it would come for a few years and have been afraid it would fall through. It’s like, ‘It’s about time!'”

The Gowells have been planning to build the store for about five years, but the process was stalled by the 2011 bankruptcy of their distributor, Gardiner-based Associated Grocers. Gowell’s was one of numerous businesses that lost money during the process.

“When AG Maine went defunct, we lost $50,000 and it set us back a little bit,” Rick Gowell said.

The Gowells, who now partner with IGA to supply their groceries, will switch over to Hannaford Supermarkets when the new store opens. That new partnership, Rick Gowell said, will give the new store instant stability and appeal. The new store will be called Gowell’s Shop ‘n’ Save, which is the label given to Hannaford affiliates.

“You have to put yourself with the most powerful partner you can, and that’s Hannaford,” Gowell said. “Their buying power is huge.”

Hannaford spokesman Eric Blom said his company is very selective about the partners with whom it choses to work. He said Hannaford has only a few dozen such stores under its umbrella. All have been selected based on the reputation of the owners rather than the potential business.

“It’s less about market analysis,” Blom said. “Really what it’s about is the quality of the individual in the partnership. We only will do business with people we feel are quality individuals and quality business people.”

Blom said Hannaford turns down far more requests for partnerships than it accepts.

“We feel it’s important if the Hannaford name is going to be sold at a particular location, it is somebody we can be proud of and that the people can be proud of.”

Every business wants to have a good reputation in town, but the Gowells’ motivation runs deeper. The family’s roots run deep in the town, encompassing a few different businesses. Rick Gowell’s father and grandfather, Clarence Gowell Sr. and junior, opened the store in 1976. The family has run it ever since.

Rick Gowell, who will soon celebrate his 20th year as a volunteer firefighter with the town, said he likes knowing the people with whom he does business. He believes most people feel the same way.

“People want to keep business local,” he said. “It’s important to know, ‘Who am I spending my money with?'”

Gowell referenced the IGA in nearby Greene. Though much closer to other super shopping centers, the Greene store does a brisk business. The IGA, Gowell said, is owned by “good people” who are known in their community.

“That’s an example of a community grocery store,” he said.

“It’s local people,” Bobbi Gowell added. “People want a country store.”

Lamoreau said the Gowells “have been very generous” in the town. That generosity has not only built up loyalty; it has fostered trust.

“Litchfield has a lot of pride,” Lamoreau said. “They really care about the people that live in the community.”

The trust the community has put in the Gowells already played itself out before the first piece of heavy equipment arrived on site. The Gowells were planning to put up a metal building, but settled instead on a more traditional wood-frame construction with clapboard siding.

“It just did not fit the community,” Rick Gowell said. “The store is going to look like it fits. We want to be good neighbors.”

The store could take a little longer as a result, but the Gowells hope to open the doors in June. They hope the forecasts of a mild winter are right.

“If we can keep going right through the winter, we will,” Rick Gowell said.

That’s good news to Gowell’s regular customers, who streamed in and out of the store last week.

“I think it’s good for the community,” said Tom Campbell of Litchfield, who, before noon, was already making his second visit of the day.

Campbell said the Litchfield Country Store across town was at one time a small grocery store. It has since been converted into a straight convenience store, Campbell said. Litchfield residents have been forced to drive a long way for their groceries for the past 20 years, said Campbell, who said he typically shops in Augusta. Gowell’s Store is kept busy by people unwilling to drive to the city for what they need, Campbell said, and he expects the new grocery store to peel even more business from those urban stores.

“This little store sells a lot of groceries,” he said. “From 4 to 6 at night, it’s standing room only for the parking lot.”

Lynda Constanzo of Litchfield said she does most of her shopping in Auburn when she is there on other errands, but still finds a reason to stop by Gowell’s Store just about every day for basics like bread and milk. She expects to do more of her shopping at the grocery store.

“I like the employees here,” Constanzo said. “I like the little country store. It’s a more friendly atmosphere.”

The Gowells are counting on the idea that there are enough people like Constanzo and Campbell to make a new country store successful.

“This is a big investment for our family in the community,” Rick Gowell said. “People ask every day when the store is going to be done. There’s just a lot of excitement in the community.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @CraigCrosby4

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