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Closing store doors a growing problem

| Thursday, Jan. 9, 2003

If the last blue light goes out at the Big Kmart in McIntyre Square, it won't mean just the end of daily specials — it also will mean that Ross will have another large, vacant retail spot along busy McKnight Road.

Ross Commissioner Lana Mazur wants to see that trend reversed.

At Northway Mall, Family Toy and the Hanes outlet recently closed. In McIntyre Square, which straddles the Ross-McCandless border, the Builder's Square has been vacant for years and the Phar-Mor store closed last year.

"Continue (south) down McKnight Road, you're going to see that going up to Ross Park Mall," Mazur said. "There's an office complex there that used to have Pier One Imports in it. … In North Hills Village, you have an Ames that's been out, and all kinds of other little shops that are out. That's just the beginning of them."

More than a dozen retail and office spaces are vacant along McKnight Road in Ross, in addition to nearly as many smaller shops along Babcock Boulevard.

Mazur and other Ross officials fear the Kmart will be next to close.

Kmart Corp. filed for bankruptcy last year. So far, nearly 300 Kmart locations have closed their doors, including one in Cranberry. Industry analysts say the chain is likely to close more stores, but Kmart officials will not say if the Ross site might be among them.

Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said if Kmart folds completely, the repercussions throughout the strip mall industry will be dramatic.

"They do act as an anchor in some of the centers. Their primary goal is to draw people there," she said. "If they do go dark, it will be interesting to see what happens. Their stores are a decent square footage."

How long a site sits vacant varies depending on location and desirability, she said.

"A good example was Montgomery Ward's. People were very worried about those spaces," Duker said. "From our side, it was a positive. They lost their foothold with the consumers, and they had great locations. People wanted their space. With Kmart, you're wondering what will fill it, but it depends on the location of the Kmart to say how quickly it will fill."

Mazur fears the situation along McKnight will get worse if the proposed Mt. Nebo Pointe development at Camp Horne and Mt. Nebo roads in Ohio Township is built. That complex would include a Target, a supermarket and other stores, a hotel, restaurants and an office building. Ross commissioners unanimously approved a resolution last month opposing a tax break being sought for the Ohio Township complex.

Although Target and Kmart are direct competitors, Duker said a new Target going in near an existing Kmart would not necessarily be a death knell for the latter.

"Ask anybody who's putting in retail in this country, they're doing their homework much more diligently," Duker said. "When Target moves in, they're going to look to see what's around them — absolutely — and they're going to say, 'How's the market• Can it support two retailers?'"

Duker said a store pulls its primary customers from a radius of three to five miles, but the final determination of a store's continued existence is sales performance.

"It's going to come down to what stores are underperforming and what stores are not making ends meet," she said. "It doesn't meant that if there's a Target or a Wal-Mart five minutes down the road that that location will close."

Unlike Ross, some communities have ordinances to help prevent big-box stores from sitting vacant., although Ross does not have one. For example, Peachtree City, Ga., and Evanstown, Wyo., allow a building owner to negate a contract if a retail tenant occupying more than 10,000 square feet voluntarily moves out. The landlord then can lease the space to another company, as long as it is not a direct competitor of the tenant that left. Without such an ordinance, retail chains can continue paying the lease even though the store is vacant.

Mazur said she would be interested in looking into that type of ordinance. She also plans a meeting with the Northern Allegheny County Chamber of Commerce next month to discuss the issue and how much it could impact Ross.

Peter Ferraro, chairman of the Ross commissioners, shares Mazur's concerns.

"I really don't know how many vacancies we normally have throughout a calendar year," he said. "I know we lost a couple of majors — that's my concern more than anything else. If we lose a few small businesses through transition, I think that's normal."

Ferraro said anchor stores are important because they draw so many people.

"We were fortunate to get Home Depot where Hechinger's was up there (near Ross Park Mall)," he said. "If we lose Kmart — and it looks like we are — then there's another void up there. You need those big-box stores to draw the people there. If you lose those anchors, I don't know what would happen."

Mazur said she hopes the meeting with the Chamber of Commerce will bring forth ways to bring businesses back to the empty stores.

"We're going to sit down together to try to figure out how to bring business here — how to solicit business," Mazur said. "We lost businesses that could have come here that went to Cranberry. We have to capture some of the businesses to come back to Ross."

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