Representatives from Whole Foods Market, the world’s largest retailer of natural and organic foods, visited New Haven last week in search of potential sites for a new store opening.

The product of a year-long effort to bring a healthy grocery store to New Haven, the visit marks the first step in an economic development strategy that the city hopes will both bring in business and satisfy the demands of an increasingly health-conscious community, New Haven Director of Public Information Derek Slap said.

Not only would the opening of a large-scale national retailer create jobs and bring in much-needed property taxes for New Haven, but it would draw customers from surrounding towns. Currently, the only Whole Foods Market in Connecticut is about an hour away in Greenwich.

“We have heard from a lot of residents that there is a strong interest in Whole Foods Market,” Slap said. “We believe a market is definitely here for them.”

Slap said the Whole Foods representatives looked at a few sites in the Long Wharf area. Although the city’s first choice would be a downtown location, Slap said Whole Foods requires a space of at least two acres with plenty of parking, preferably close to a highway.

Whole Foods spokesman Fred Shank was unable to comment on any potential future openings.

“We are always looking for the best sites possible for a Whole Foods market,” Shank said.

Some community members have voiced concern that the opening of Whole Foods Market could hurt small, locally-owned businesses such as the Farmers Market at Wooster Square and Edge of the Woods, a vegetarian organic grocery store on Whalley Avenue.

Edge of the Woods manager Peter Dodge said while he does not like the idea of a large-scale organic grocery store opening in New Haven, after 28 years of business with little competition, it seems inevitable.

“The nature of the beast right now is that there is a Whole Foods opening in every big city,” Dodge said. “I’m sure there are some things Whole Foods will have that we won’t, but there are also some things they’ll have that will keep our customers from shopping there — like meat.”

Edge of the Woods attracts a contingent of strict vegan eaters as well as kosher orthodox Jews whose specific needs the market satisfies, Yale Associate Vice President of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said. Morand said he does not think Whole Foods will pose any threat to smaller locally-owned businesses.

“They have a built in market from people living in the area that will be maintained,” Morand said. “And the prices at Edge of the Woods would be very competitive with Whole Foods.”

The existence of another supermarket in New Haven would serve as a viable alternative to Shaw’s, especially for students living off-campus who go grocery shopping regularly. Jane Gallaudet ’07, who moved off campus this year, said she would be very excited about shopping at a healthier and higher quality market.

“As long as the prices are reasonable and the location is convenient, I would definitely shop at Whole Foods,” Gallaudet said.