So long Sears, but what's next for WW retail scene?

Advertisement

WALLA WALLA -- Sears will liquidate its Walla Walla store stock and abandon the building by the end of April, closing a major retail outlet that has served the Valley for more than 50 years.

Its closure means not only the end of more than 40 jobs in a tight employment market with little retail expansion, but represents arguably one of the biggest waves in a sea change for Walla Walla's retail landscape.

Soon to be gone with the store, once part of the former Blue Mountain Mall, is its virtually unparalleled selection of appliances, electronics, tools and clothing all under one roof. The store operated at its Rose Street site for two decades, and for at least three decades before that it sold goods from a downtown location.

So what's next for the retail picture in Walla Walla and the jobs that come with it?

The Sears move was part of a national corporate retrenchment and downsizing that will close more than 100 stores.

Sears spokeswoman Kimberley Freely said liquidation at the Walla Walla store will take place in April. Whether it could return in another location or in another format is not known, she said.

"I couldn't speculate as to what the answer is," she said. "I'm sure the real estate team continues to evaluate the portfolio and obviously looks for opportunities."

Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said he had hoped to influence the company to keep some kind of local footprint. His messages to various corporate managers in Chicago have not been returned, he said.

For Walla Walla, the loss of jobs is difficult, said regional labor economist Arum Kone.

"In terms of numbers it's small," he said. "But in terms of loss and having those employees hired by other retailers, it's hard."

There's no influx of openings for that many people, so workers would either have to retrain and compete for a new occupation or wait until something opens at another retailer.

The closure also leaves the city of Walla Walla with a potential loss in sales tax revenue if shoppers go out of town to buy what they bought at Sears.

Shawa said the state Department of Revenue prevents the dissemination of data revealing sales tax derived from specific businesses. Such data might help reveal if Sears' bottom line had suffered more after the 2008 demolition of the Blue Mountain Mall, where it was an anchor.

A number of analysts in national publications have criticized Sears Chairman Edward Lampert, a billionaire hedge fund manager, for leading the company to its current status. Among the criticisms is that little money has been invested back into Sears stores for updates.

Too, local officials have speculated that the demise of the mall and its owners' abandonment of a redevelopment project may have played a part in Sears' performance.

Shawa could not say whether there was a marked decline in Sears operation since 2008, when the mall was demolished for major redevelopment but left sitting after property owners failed to secure financing for new construction.

For his part, Shawa is optimistic the Sears closure be an opportunity for an existing business to expand or a new one to help fill the void.

But if a Sears store can't make it here, could it alternately serve as a warning to others not to come?

Shawa maintains that the city's slow population growth may be playing against Walla Walla. But he doesn't believe Sears' departure will discourage new retailers.

Though the community's relatively small population has sometimes been a detrimental factor in retail recruitment, officials believe Walla Walla has the spending power to support businesses, if residents choose to shop locally.

But retailers wouldn't necessarily know that just by looking at per capita retail sales tax figures.

According to the most recent figures, Walla Walla's retail spending has consistently decreased every year between 2007 and 2010. Figures for 2011 haven't yet been compiled.

But in 2010, Walla Wallans per capita spent an estimated $4,737 on retail purchases, compared to a state average of $6,885, according to figures provided by Kone.

He said the numbers can be partly explained because of the disparity between Walla Walla's per capita personal income compared with the rest of the state, as well as being home to an older demographic that statistically tends to need and buy fewer items.

The key in moving forward, said Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz, will be following the money.

"I guess the question that has yet to be answered is, for those who shopped at Sears in Walla Walla, what's going to be their alternative place to shop?" he said. "Are they going to decide to go into the Tri-Cities and spend their disposable income there, or will they decide that there's somebody else in Walla Walla that has what they're looking for?"

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321 or vickihillhouse@wwub.com

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment