Been There, Done That

Manahawkin Kmart Closing Just the Tip of an Iceberg

By RICK MELLERUP | Jun 21, 2017

The SandPaper recently reported the Manahawkin Kmart is slated to close by September.

That shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone who has shopped at the store in the past couple of years. Many times it seemed as if there were more employees than customers, and the store was far from overstaffed. Meanwhile, anybody who follows the news knows that Sears Holding, Kmart’s parent company, has been busy closing both Sears and Kmart stores all across the country this year. In early January the company said it would shutter 42 Sears stores and 108 Kmart stores by April. Then, early this month, Sears Holding announced it was closing 16 additional Sears stores, 49 Kmart stores including the one in Manahawkin, and seven auto centers.

Sears and Kmart, which bought Sears in 2005, have struggled for a long time, unable to compete with Walmart, Target and, especially as time goes on, online sales. According to a March 22 article in The New York Times, there were only 1,430 Sears and Kmart stores in the U.S, down from “about 3,800 stores in the United States and Canada” a decade before.

Now, the closing of Kmart in Manahawkin will leave the shopping center it is located in off Route 72 without an anchor. That’s a problem. But that’s nothing compared with the threat that the collapse of Sears Holding poses for the Ocean County Mall in Toms River.

That mall, which opened in 1976, is anchored by Sears, Macy’s, Boscov’s and JCPenney. Like Sears, Macy’s is in trouble, announcing last August it was planning on closing 100 of its 729 stores in early 2017. Macy’s announced 68 locations in January, meaning 32 are still up in the air. In March JCPenney decided to close 138 stores, about 14 percent of the company’s locations. Only Boscov’s, despite having filed bankruptcy in 2008, is opening stores. But it is small potatoes in the retail business, a family-owned regional business with fewer than 50 stores. Interestingly, its newest stores, one in Utica, N.Y., that opened last October and one in Erie, Pa., to be opened this autumn, are replacing closed Sears outlets.

It is easy to see the Ocean County Mall becoming a ghost town in the next few years.

In my last column, Little Ricky Mellerup – hey, I was a contemporary of Little Ricky Ricardo – was 7 years old and living in the tiny town of Ellenburg, N.Y., on the Canadian border. But I visited cities. My father was going to grad school in Montreal so I was introduced to that wonderful and perhaps most European of North American cities at an early age. My father’s mother lived in New Haven, Conn., so I spent many a weekend there. But the city I most remember from my youth was Bangor, Maine, because my mother came from a family of a dozen kids, most of whom lived in the Bangor area. Needless to say, we did a ton of visiting. Indeed, I’m still going to Bangor every year because it is where my parents retired.

Downtown Bangor in the early 1960s was actually a thriving place despite having a population of only about 38,000 because the city, as it still is today, was the shopping hub serving all of northern and eastern Maine – in other words, that half of the state not served by Portland. It was anchored, as it had been since 1892, by Freese’s Department Store, the largest store in the state at 140,000 square feet, and was known locally as the Fifth Avenue of Maine. I well remember Freese’s fantastic Christmas displays!

Alas, as the years went on, more and more businesses moved out to strip malls and, then, in 1978, to the 60-acre Bangor Mall, built on the site of a former dairy farm. Even Freese’s couldn’t survive, closing on Jan. 1, 1985. Bangor’s downtown became a wasteland, filled with empty buildings, pawnshops and sleazy bars.

Bangor, though, in the last decade, made a concerted effort to bring the downtown back. It now is home to renovated apartment buildings, including the old Freese’s building, specialty shops, the Penobscot Theatre Company – the only year-round professional theater company in northern Maine, which operates out of the Bangor Opera House, built in 1920 –and upscale restaurants and bars. There are major concerts at its nearby waterfront on the Penobscot River and a well-attended downtown New Year’s Eve celebration. It still has empty buildings, but it has definitely turned a corner and, as it turns out, just in the nick of time.

Because Bangor Mall is in trouble. In January, it lost one of its four anchors, Macy’s. Its remaining building blocks are Dick’s Sporting Goods and the aforementioned JCPenney and Sears. If one of those topples, look out!

Malls are dying all over the country.

“Dozens of malls have closed in the last 10 years,” wrote Hayley Peterson in Business Insider in March, “and many more are at risk of shutting down as retailers like Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears – also known as anchor stores – shutter hundreds of stores to staunch the bleeding from falling sales.

“The commercial-real-estate firm CoStar estimates that nearly a quarter of the malls in the US, or roughly 310 of the nation’s 1,300 shopping malls, are at high risk of losing an anchor store.

“When anchor stores close, it can be hard to find businesses to replace them, because they occupy the multistory buildings at mall entrances that are often at least 100,000 square feet. If no replacement tenant is found, the loss could trigger a decades-long downward spiral for the shopping mall and surrounding communities.

“‘The communities wither away, and they never come back,’ said Howard Daviowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a national retail consulting and investment banking firm headquartered in New York City.”

Places like Bangor, which fought to rebuild its dying downtown, will survive; indeed, it may thrive again as the Bangor Mall shrinks. But what about the towns in Ocean County that, for the most part, don’t even have recognizable downtowns?

“The shopping that used to be done in the mall,” Davidowitz told Business Insider, “is now at Family Dollar, Dollar Tree, TJ Maxx and Walmart.”

A ride up Route 9 is already an ugly experience, thanks to strip malls. It is going to get worse.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.