Walla Walla Sears set to close

The local store is on a list of Sears and Kmart stores around the country slated for closure.

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COMMUNITY REACTION TO NEWS OF THE PLANNED CLOSURE IS INCLUDED BELOW.

WALLA WALLA -- Sears Holding Corp. announced Thursday it will close its Walla Walla store. The closure is part of a nationwide strategy to raise cash by eliminating its "marginally performing" stores.

The Rose Street location is one of 79 Sears and Kmart outlets slated for closure so far, the company said. As many as 100 to 120 full-line locations are expected to be shuttered, but Walla Walla's is the only Sears in Washington yet to make the list.

Virtually no other information has been announced about the closure, including the timing or what it will look like. In fact, an automated message on the company's media line discouraged reporters from leaving questions regarding the closures.

The departure will leave Shopko as the last retailer standing from the original Blue Mountain Mall. Literally everything else between and around two of the mall's anchor stores has been demolished or partially torn down from a redevelopment attempt that went notoriously awry three years ago.

Local business and government officials say the discombobulated state of the property coupled with poor visibility and access to Sears likely didn't help bolster the store's financial health. Nevertheless the closure is out of the ordinary for Sears, which said Thursday it has traditionally tried to improve sales at its marginally performing stores.

"...We no longer believe that to be the appropriate action in this environment," store officials said in a news release. "We intend to accentuate our focus and resources to our better performing stores with the goal of converting their customer experience into a world-class integrated retail experience.

The company expects to generate $140 million to $170 million cash with the sale of net inventory and its various properties or subleases. With the full list of Sears and Kmart stores slated to close not yet out, some may be holding out hope that the inventory from Sears may find its way into Walla Walla's Kmart on Isaacs Avenue.

In a rural community positioned in an economy less than ideal for retail recruitment, that scenario may be as much as anyone can hope for, some officials said this morning.

Walla Walla and the surrounding area have other stores that offer many of the same types of items offered at Sears. But there isn't another store of its kind featuring the specialty items it offers all in one place: appliances, tools, housewares, shoes, clothing, a portrait studio, lawn and garden equipment and more.

Consequently, the closure could make it more difficult for residents to fill their household needs locally. Or it could be that the reason for the closure was that they weren't doing that in the first place.

Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said he had hoped the closures would be focused on more metropolitan areas where retail competition is stiffer. "We're disappointed," he said this morning. "The last thing we want to see is a business closing in Walla Walla and leaving town."

Not only does the closure pose a challenge in shopping choices for consumers, but it leaves local residents without jobs, he said. Sears has said a typical store employs anywhere from 40 to 80 workers.

Shawa said retail sales collections for the last quarter were 5 or 6 percent over the city's estimates, indicating that people have been spending money at local establishments. He said he hopes to work closely with private landowners to prepare large-scale properties for development when companies show an interest in moving to Walla Walla. He said the city has reached out to retailers and will continue to follow up leads that come forward.

Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer David Woolson said the closure could create an opportunity for other businesses to fill the under-served needs of the market. On the flip side, some retailers could choose to interpret the closure as a more organic problem here.

"Obviously this is part of a broader reduction of stores that is happening," Woolson said. "Beyond that I think there are two sides to it. One is: Does it seem to create more of an impression that Walla Walla can't support that type of retail, which is a concern. At the same time, I think the right kind of retail can flourish here.

"What is that mix is what we need to kind of continue to identify and support."

In addition to Walla Walla's Sears store, a Kmart in Lacey, Wash., is slated for closure, as is a Sears Hardlines store in Lewiston. The company said it will continue to update its list as information becomes available. Sears Holdings Corp. operates more than 4,000 full-line and specialty retail stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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