Retail world changing; what’s a city to do?

By OLIVIA INGLE
oingle@dcherald.com

JASPER — Today’s retail landscape is changing. Some blame online shopping. Others blame specialized boutiques.

At a time when national chains are pulling the plug because of decreasing sales and a changing market, different local entities are working behind the scenes to bring retail opportunities to Jasper.

The Jasper Chamber of Commerce, the City of Jasper and economic development group Dubois Strong all play key, but different, roles in the endeavor.

Jasper Chamber of Commerce

Chamber Executive Director Nancy Eckerle says Jasper is the “hub” of Dubois County and even surrounding counties. She keeps in touch with owners of the town’s four major shopping centers — Jasper Manor, Southgate, Germantown and Northridge — and downtown business owners to ensure their needs, as well as the area’s consumers’ needs, are being met.

She pinpointed Germantown Shopping Center on Jasper’s north side and Jasper Manor on the city’s southeast side as centers that are ever-changing.

Phillips Edison & Company of Indianapolis owns the Jasper Manor and the development is currently anchored by Kmart, J.C. Penney, Holiday Foods and Trader Bakers, although change is imminent.

J.C. Penney Company announced last month the liquidation and closing of 138 stores, including Jasper Manor’s store. Liquidation sales were originally set to begin April 17 with a closing date in mid-June, but the company pushed back the dates last week because of “better-than-expected sales and traffic.” The liquidation sale at the Jasper store will now begin May 22 and the store will close July 31.

“J.C. Penney leaving, I think, will hit hard here,” Eckerle said. “I think that will leave a big hole, not only in that shopping center, but it will just leave a big hole in the shopping options that people in this area have.”

Jasper Manor also houses Kmart, which is operated by Sears Holdings Corporation, a company that has closed numerous Sears and Kmart stores over the years in an attempt to cut costs. The company said in March that there is “substantial doubt” that it can continue operating, citing that its stores aren’t holding their own in an e-commerce world.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Jasper that Kmart has made the cut several times when they’ve (Sears Holdings) made some cuts throughout the U.S.,” Eckerle said. “We’ve been lucky because that really is a big need.”

She said a representative with Phillips Edison & Company visits Jasper several times a month and the company is “aggressively seeking business to go in there (Jasper Manor).”

Jasper Manor offers a unique challenge, Eckerle said, in that most of the city’s business action is located on Jasper’s north side, but the company is “working hard at trying to fill all of their stores and make sure their shopping center remains viable in Jasper.”

Eckerle said Germantown Shopping Center is one in town that appears to be flourishing. Evansville-based Regency Properties bought the north side shopping center a little more than a year ago.

“They’ve done painting ... and they’ve brought in a couple of new businesses also, which helps attracts others,” Eckerle said. Owners of the grill and pub Wings Etc. told The Herald last week that the restaurant plans to open in the shopping center in late May. National clothing chain Rue21 is the center’s newest retailer.

However, the future may not be all bright and rosy for all businesses in the Germantown Shopping Center. A recent Wall Street Journal article lists Bon-Ton Stores, Inc., which owns the Carson’s department store in Germantown, as one of 10 public retailers that are most in danger of default. WSJ reports that Bon-Ton Stores recorded a $63-million loss in sales 2016 and expects similar sales for 2017.

Germantown opened in the mid-1980s, and has seen all kinds of stores come and go — Elder Beerman, On Cue music store, Radio Shack, Yogurt DeLite, Buehler’s Buy Low, Klink’s Hallmark. It was home to Wal-Mart until the store moved across the street in 1999 and became a super center; that move was a much-debated tussle in Jasper and the space where the old Wal-Mart was located remains partially empty.

Today, Germantown houses such businesses as Maurices, China’s Best, Carson’s, Shoe Sensation, Rent-A-Center, Glik’s, Hibbett Sports and Buy Low’s descendant Save-A-Lot Discount Grocers.

Jim Wittman, vice president of leasing and development for Regency Properties, believes retail can tell the story of a town, and that’s what Regency aims to do by looking at the needs and wants of the community and surrounding ones.

“We have a number of deals we’re constantly working on,” he said, also saying that Germantown was 42 percent vacant when the company bought it last year, and it’s on track to being 90 percent full by the end of this year.

Regency Properties specializes in county seat communities and has tenants at both the regional and national levels.

It’s ultimately up to shopping center owners, Eckerle said, but there’s not a huge effort in getting big-box stores and big national chains to locate in the area because they can hurt locally-owned businesses.

“A lot of times, the locally-owned businesses are the backbone of the community,” she said. “They are the ones who support the ball teams, the civic clubs, the school programs and those kind of things.

“It has to be a blend of both,” she said of big-box stores and local and regional businesses, “but a blend that works for the community.”

City and Dubois Strong

Jasper Mayor Terry Seitz says actively seeking out retail opportunities has not been the role of the City of Jasper.

“Retail is kind of like something, I find, that follows what the city is doing, follows the jobs, follows the employment,” he said. “And then the retail picks up because the area is an attraction to the employers, is an attraction to employees and therefore becomes a shopping destination.”

He said that oftentimes when new businesses are coming to town, they’re not working with the mayor’s office.

“We’re not opposed to that,” he said, “but they’re dealing with the system that’s already in place — landlords, real estate people, market research people.”

He believes it’s the city’s job to build the infrastructure and make Jasper a city worthy of investment. Retail will follow.

“We have the opportunity to do what we need to acquire more people and to grow,” Seitz said. “I think, ultimately, those things all add up and the marketplace will take care of that (retail).”

That’s where Dubois Strong comes into play.

The economic development group seeks to maximize community resources and assets to foster economic growth and is in the midst of a $30,000 Facebook advertising campaign that is targeting nearby Illinois and Kentucky counties with high unemployment with the goal of attracting workers to fill Dubois County jobs and attracting families to move to the county.

Seitz said those new workers and families will help drive development.

“The retail world will generally follow the people,” he said.

Future of retail in Dubois County

Eckerle said the Chamber is forming a group to look at the health of retail in Jasper, citing the recent closings of Ben Franklin, Klink’s Hallmark and RadioShack as the impetus, as well as J.C. Penney’s impending departure.

“The Chamber wants to take a proactive approach to the shopping center areas and seek ways to attract businesses to fill these spots before we’re left with centers that have many vacant spots,” she said. “The time is now to review the current and future situation, assess the shopping centers, find ways to determine what is needed in Jasper and what our market can bear.”

Seitz said the city, as well as Dubois Strong, will be involved in the group’s retail conversation.

While he supports regional and national chains locating to the area, he believes that entrepreneurs are what make Jasper’s future bright.

“Now is prime time for people to get into business on their own, with online and storefronts,” he said. “I like to say we’re a very large small city. A great place for dreams to be made.”

 

Why can’t Jasper have this or that?

Why can’t Jasper, or Dubois County, have this store or that store?

The reason is typically based on population, Jasper Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Nancy Eckerle said, but bigger retail corporations take many factors into consideration when deciding whether to locate to a community.

Take Target, for instance. Its closest locations to Dubois County are Owensboro, Evansville and Bloomington.

In an email to The Herald, Target spokesperson Megan Boyd said that Target is always looking at new opportunities in underserved areas and is “constantly focused on growth in key markets as well as on college campuses.”

Those key markets currently include the metropolitan areas of the San Francisco/Bay area; Los Angeles; San Diego; Chicago; New York; Boston; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Seattle; Miami and Minneapolis.

The company looks at existing store performance, demographics, competition and market potential when identifying areas that would be well-served by an additional store location.

Anticipated sales volume, site constraints and the specific needs of a community are also considered.

The Herald also reached out to grocery chain ALDI, whose closest locations are Owensboro, Bedford and Evansville. The chain doesn’t have plans for a Dubois County store anytime soon.

Its factors in determining new locations include population density, proximity to competition, cost of the property and traffic patterns.

“We want to be conveniently located for our shoppers,” said Laura Bauer, vice president of ALDI’s Greenwood Division.

Eckerle encourages corporations to dig a little deeper into the Jasper market, because they’d realize the city “is much bigger than a 15,000 population.”

“We have a lot of industry here,” she said. “A lot of people come to work here, they come here for medical needs, so there’s a lot of reasons people come here which makes our population really much bigger.”




More on DuboisCountyHerald.com