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With big anchors away, small businesses adrift

April 07, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

Vicki Orye wasn't expecting to rake in riches when she moved her beauty salon to the Ames Shopping Center in 2001. Orye just wanted to make a living for herself and her employees and provide better parking for her customers.

Since Ames closed last October, her Country Flair Beauty Salon has seen such a drop in walk-in traffic that her eight stylists are hardly working, Orye said.

Ames is the latest of several anchor stores to close or move from shopping centers in Hagerstown. Store owners and managers said they've seen a significant decline in business since the anchor stores left while others said their businesses were doing well because, as destination-type stores, they draw enough business on their own.

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Sears, Weis Market, Wal-Mart and Lowe's are the other anchor stores that have moved to bigger stores at other shopping centers, leaving behind empty buildings that once drew hundreds or thousands of shoppers to them and neighboring stores.

"The main concern is having vacant property that's dormant, that's not drawing business, that's hurting the smaller business people in the area," Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said.

Breichner said city officials have discussed whether a policy is needed to discourage "big box" stores such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's from moving around town, leaving empty stores behind.

Some communities have considered making owners of such stores put up performance bonds so they have to tear the empty building down if they relocate, Hagerstown Planning Director Kathy Maher said. Maher was not aware of anyone who has done that.

Hagerstown officials decided to enact minimum performance standards in an effort to help the surrounding businesses, Maher said.

The vacant property must be kept in good condition, landscaping must be maintained, the old store sign must be removed and a sign with leasing information posted, and parking lot lights must be left on during evening business hours for the surrounding commercial area, Maher said.

Those rules go into effect on April 24 for freestanding stores with more than 75,000 square feet that are vacated by their owner, Maher said.

What Oyre and other small shop owners want to see is businesses opening in empty anchor stores to bring more shopping traffic to the centers where they are located.

Bad weather and the loss of walk-in traffic have hurt her business enough that she is behind on her rent on a lease with 1 1/2 years left, Oyre said.

"When my lease is up, if they have nothing in here, I'm leaving," Oyre said. "If they have something in there, then it will be negotiable."

No deals are pending for a store to move into the vacant anchor spot, said Ron Ruth, director of real estate for the Mid-Atlantic region for Kimco Realty Corp., which owns the shopping center.

Like Ames, many of the large discount and department stores that would have been potential suitors for such a space have gone out of business since the mid-1990s, Ruth said. Those include Jamesway and Bradlees, and many Kmart stores have closed. The Kmart on Massey Boulevard has so far been spared in the waves of closings since the discount retailer sought to emerge from bankruptcy.

Wal-Mart has taken a lot of other discount stores' business, Ruth said. "Wal-Mart is a very, very aggressive retailer."

Among other practices, Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, sends its managers into other stores to check prices, Ruth said.

Many of the nationwide retailers that prefer box-type stores want more space than the 63,100 square feet Ames occupied, Ruth said. Some want more than double that amount.

So Ruth is listening to any parties interested in the Ames building. The store could become home to a local business, as is the case with space once occupied by a grocer at Old Orchard Center and now filled by Innerspace Floor to Ceiling.

A national small grocer was interested in about 20,000 square feet of the Ames store, but Ruth said it is unlikely the building will be split up because of the cost.

In March 2002, Sears moved from the Long Meadow Shopping Center to occupy an anchor spot at Valley Mall after Wards closed.

Weis Market moved to the Centre at Antietam Creek on Dual Highway in October 2000, leaving vacant the store at Towne Plaza on Maryland Avenue. A couple doors down is a vacant Phar-Mor.

The former Lowe's store on Wesel Boulevard has been empty since January 1997 when Lowe's opened a larger store across the street.

The former Wal-Mart store on Wesel Boulevard has been vacant for almost three years since the nation's No. 1 retailer opened a super Wal-Mart at the Centre at Hagerstown. Negotiations were under way for buyers for the vacant Wal-Mart and Lowe's buildings on Wesel Boulevard, spokespeople for Wal-Mart and Lowe's said, but those deals were not finalized by the time this story was filed.

The loss of walk-in traffic from shoppers who had been drawn by the now-departed anchor stores has dramatically affected some neighboring businesses.

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