‘A lost part of town’

Josh Johnston

Mary Woodyard has watched the stores come and go. Hills, Ames, Tops Department and grocery stores build at 1600 S. Water St. and then disappear. The location today is a nearly vacant shopping plaza with a vast, empty parking lot.

“I guess I had thought that perhaps another store would take over,” said Woodyard, who has been at the neighboring Tires and More for 18 years. “When it (the building) was open, it was clean, it was shiny, it was brand new, it was state of the art. I really didn’t think it’d be empty this many years.”??

The plaza that stands today was built by Tops Markets after the New York-based grocery store bought the former Hills building and demolished it. The Kent store opened on May 22, 2002 — the 50th Tops location in Northeast Ohio, according to the Tops Web site.

The new building included a 49,000 square foot grocery store and smaller storefronts connected to it. ??

Kent City Councilman Wayne Wilson, whose ward includes the empty plaza, said businesses from other parts of town picked up and moved into the plaza.

“When Tops went in down there, the hair salon (Famous Hair) was (by University Plaza),” he said. “They moved down there thinking newer building and better traffic and all that. Then Tops moved out on them.”??

Tops closed in February 2004, not even two years after opening. In the surrounding area, most of the Tops stores were shutting down as well, said Dan Smith, Kent economic development director.

“Apparently their expansion plans across the area were a bit overreaching,” Smith said. “Ravenna, Kent, Akron — all of them closed about the same time.”?

Stores moving in and out of the location isn’t uncommon though. As far back as Wilson can remember, the site, at the south end of Kent near state Route 261, has been a revolving door of businesses.

Tops replaced Hills. Hills replaced Ames, which originally replaced a Hills (Ames bought out Hills Department Stores in 1999). Hills took over when Gold Circle liquidated in the 80s. The first store change Wilson remembers is Gold Circle replacing a Clarkin’s, which originally relocated from University Plaza.

“It just never really seemed to click down there,” Wilson said. “I guess it’s possibly because it’s too far from downtown maybe, or they just haven’t had the right thing go down there.”?

Hills, Ames, Gold Circle and Clarkin’s have all gone out of business. The only businesses that remain in the building are Famous Hair and Fancy Nails.

Smith said one possible reason stores fail to survive at the site could be the number of Walmarts in the area. Four Walmarts exist in a 10-mile radius around Kent. ??

“Without question, they’re a main competitor,” Smith said. “I think you just need to see their parking lot on any given weekend. They’re a major force in the industry.”?

Because of the low prices Walmart offers, Smith said other stores have difficulty competing. Local stores have to offer better customer service or specialized goods in order to keep up.

“I think at some point, too, it’s good to remind people if they don’t patronize local stores, they cease to exist,” Smith said. “It’s a staunch reminder to us all.”??

On the other hand, a Walmart in the plaza itself couldn’t hurt, Wilson said. ??

“Quite honestly, if they put a Walmart down there, we’d probably see the thing packed 24 hours a day,” he said.

While the city is currently focused on the development of downtown Kent, Smith said they have been “actively pursuing” businesses for the empty plaza.

“When we see other retailers move into Tops properties, we contact them,” he said. “While the downtown does take our time, we still promote other community areas.”?

What makes the area more difficult to re-tenant is that there’s a separate building owner and landowner, Smith said. ??

Tops is still paying the lease on the property. Drew Sulzer, president of Reisenfeld and Company, which handles the leasing of the building, said Tops has eight to 10 years left on the lease at around $20,000 a month.

McGill Property Group, a property developer based in Florida, owns the ground lease and the buildings at 1600 S. Water St. Matt McGill, project manager for McGill Property Group, said in an e-mail, a change of ownership of the land is in process, but he could not release any details.

Meanwhile, Mary Woodyard from Tires and More can only look at a vacant lot with disappointment.

“All the time, I bet there’s not a day that goes by where a customer goes, ‘Hey Mary, what’s going in the building next door?’ As if we have control over it,” she said. “We have all kinds of great ideas. Between ourselves and our customers we could probably name 20 different things that could go in there or would do well in that location.

“We’re sort of in a lost part of town.”

Contact public affairs reporter Josh Johnston at [email protected].