CLARKSBURG — Toys “R” Us, Kmart and Sears are among the large retail stores to close their Harrison County locations recently.

Elder-Beerman soon will join the list.

While their storefronts remain empty for the time being, local officials and members of the business community say retail outlets, malls and shopping plazas are far from dead. They are just changing.

“We’ve been seeing that in a lot of places the American mall has been evolving. It is no longer a place people go to buy merchandise. People today want to have a place to go that deals with all the needs in their lives. They want to be able to work out, do grocery shopping or visit the dentist,” said Joe Bell, spokesman for Cafaro Co., which owns and manages Meadowbrook Mall.

A trend happening around the country is that former “anchor stores” in shopping malls are being renovated to house other types of businesses, particularly restaurants, gyms or offices that would not have been seen at the mall a generation ago.

While online shopping may have taken a bite out of the business of many stores, people are still interested in coming to the mall for other types of services, dining and entertainment, Bell said.

Toys ‘R Us and Sears, in many areas, still had a lot of foot traffic and did a healthy amount of sales, Bell said. In those cases, the stores were closed because of mismanagement on a corporate level, he said.

“It really has nothing to do with the success of those stores and those marketplaces,” Bell said.

Meadowbrook Mall’s management recently did a rough count of vehicles at the mall and estimated that 15,000 people visit the mall on an average day.

Though he could not divulge any specifics until lease agreements are signed and final, there have been numerous businesses interested in the location formerly occupied by Sears and the soon to be vacated Elder-Beerman, Bell said.

The mall and other commercial developments near Interstate 79 and U.S. 50 interchange would be a convenient place for people to stay while visiting the area for sporting events or conferences, said Amy Wilson, director of Harrison County Economic Development Corporation.

Wilson said there could be an increased demand for hotels in the area in light of the planned Bridgeport Indoor Sports and Recreation Complex.

Harrison County, by adding unique, specialized businesses, could increase its pull on people who live outside the county. The new emphasis is many areas is on “corner stores” instead of big box stores, Wilson said.

Businesses in the Bridgeport and Clarksburg area already service people from many of the rural counties in North Central West Virginia, Wilson said.

“We have a lot going on in Harrison County. I don’t see this being a major issue. With all the stores leaving at the same time, it is going to hurt the area temporarily,” Wilson said.

The more unique experiences and specialty businesses the area can offer, the more ability it will have to draw visitors from Morgantown, Charleston, Pittsburgh and further-flung rural areas, she said.

Wilson said that when Kmart, formerly located in the Eastpointe Shopping Center on Emily Drive in Clarksburg, closed she took numerous calls from business people doing research about the location and the surrounding area.

“It has generated some interest,” she said.

The plaza is owned by Suso 4 Ocean, according to Harrison County real estate records. A leasing agent for the plaza declined to comment about the vacancy.

While the retail world transitions, the impact of store closings on tax revenue could be felt, especially in Clarksburg and Bridgeport. But so far, that impact has been minimal, officials said.

Kim Karakiozis, Clarksburg director of finance, said that businesses pay a business and occupation tax to the city each year. The tax is 1 percent of the businesses’ total sales. Bridgeport and Clarksburg also receive 1 percent sales tax revenue on most retail sales.

Though the city does not release how much each business pays, Kmart’s sales had been decreasing for several years, Karakiozis said.

Losing the tax revenue from Kmart will not necessarily hurt the city’s finances, and storefronts haven’t stayed vacant for long in recent years, Karakiozis said.

Bridgeport Mayor Andy Lang said the city will take a minor financial hit while stores are vacant, and officials will have to find ways to work around those decreases until new businesses open “There are a lot of people that travel from surrounding counties to here to do their shopping, or to go to movies or sporting events. I think they will continue; people still like to travel,” Lang said.

While some people may prefer online shopping, the closures are a sign that the marketplace is evolving, Lang said.

“When I was a kid the businesses were in the downtowns of the cities. In my lifetime they all moved to the malls. Now that is starting to give way to a new type of business,” Lang said.

Toys ‘R Us conducted liquidation sales and recently closed all its locations in the United States, including the store on Meadowbrook Mall Road in Bridgeport.

The 4.1-acre property is owned by TRU 2005 RE Holding Co., a subsidiary of Toys ‘R Us, according to Harrison County real estate records. The building and property are valued at $2.14 million, records show.

Original Story: WV News

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