Our Views: Kmart's sad closing presents grand opportunity

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September 27, 2014

First JCPenney, now Kmart.

Residents might wonder what's wrong with Janesville's retailing economy and which big-box domino might fall next.

Nothing is wrong with Janesville's retail environment. James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager, said 2014 could set another retail sales record if county sales tax collections continue on their current path. The numbers, he believes, suggest shoppers could support more stores.

“These figures, coupled with a healthier residential market and an improved employment environment, bode well for that high-visibility corner,” he said of the Kmart site.

That visibility makes the property that Kmart leased from a group of local investors and developers ripe for development. These 12 acres sit at the best commercial intersection in Janesville—at Milton Avenue and Humes Road or highways 26 and 14.

Consider what's happening around it. Toppers Pizza, Qdoba Mexican Grill and Janesville Family Dental Care fill a newly developed outlot on the property. Across Milton Avenue, the Diamond Center is erecting a new building for its relocation from the Janesville Mall, and rumors suggest a new restaurant will rise next to that store.

JCPenney and Kmart are national chains with financial problems that stretch far beyond Janesville. Many observers are surprised that Janesville's Kmart lasted this long.

As developer Tom Lasse told reporter Jim Leute in Wednesday's Gazette, “I've said for some time that I thought Kmart could close their store here and most of Janesville wouldn't even know it.”

Lasse admitted that the property's partners had been negotiating to nudge out Kmart and clear space for a more viable and vibrant retailer.

“This gives us the opportunity to clean up a 46-year-old building,” he told Leute. “Maybe we'll rehab it. Maybe we'll demolish it and start over.”

Kmart's closing represents a grand opportunity at a key entry point to the city, said Mandy Witt of Coldwell Banker Commercial, McGuire Mears and Associates. She envisions the building's redevelopment for multiple tenants.

That won't help the 70 employees—mostly hourly or part-timers—who will lose their jobs when Kmart closes in December. Lasse said he feels bad for them but expressed hope that redevelopment will provide better job opportunities.

That might be, but any workers relying on those paychecks to help support their families likely cannot wait that long. Some might be fortunate to land jobs at Sears in the mall; Sears and Kmart merged a decade ago into Sears Holding Corp. The modest pay likely makes relocating for a Kmart or Sears job elsewhere unaffordable.

Speaking of the mall and rumors, there's been conjecture about what might fill the JCPenney space, but nothing is official. Kmart's closing might shift the focus of retailers considering the JCPenney spot.

Yes, as Otterstein admits, the Internet and rise in free or low-cost delivery options are changing the retailing landscape and reshaping traditional footprints. Stores must adjust and downsize accordingly. Kmart, JCPenney and other retailers who fail to adapt quickly will be pushed aside.

And, yes, reconstruction of Interstate 90/39 might slow the flow of shoppers coming into Janesville for the next few years. Have faith, however, that the Kmart property will sit in the middle of a commercial corridor that will hum for many years to come.


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