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Belk leaving South Windmere

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Belk closing its doors at South Windermere

Department store expected to bow out early next year

BY MATTHEW MOGUL www.charleston.net

Of The Post and Courier Staff

For the past half-century, the Belk department store has been doing business at South Windermere Center.

This year will be its last.

Belk has seen many stores come and go since the West Ashley shopping center opened in 1954, making the location, some say, the oldest retail spot in the state, a place where once a Woolworths also stood.

Today, the 12-acre site offers an eclectic mix of stores, from an old-style barbershop, seamstress and ladies' shoe store to a sushi restaurant, yoga center and upscale health food shop.

Belk has been a witness to them all.

But sometime in early 2005, the department store will pack up and leave. At about the same time, construction is expected to begin on the expansion of the Belk store in Mount Pleasant.

The news in West Ashley has customers and neighboring retailers wondering what's next.

That's especially the case for 74-year-old Ann Moore, who has been shopping at Belk since it opened.

"It is a personal hurt to me because when I come here, I know a lot of the sales ladies and the sales gentlemen. I know exactly where everything is and save a lot of time," said Moore, who drives herself from her home downtown but is wary about venturing out further to other area Belk stores. "When this store closes, I can't go to the mall or Town Centre. ... I am totally disoriented in those places."

Belk currently has five area stores. Besides South Windermere, its locations are in Citadel Mall, Mount Pleasant Towne Centre, Summerville and North Charleston's Northwoods Mall.

Last year, the Northwoods Mall store got a facelift, as Belk expanded its sales floor, shifted departments around and brightened up the surroundings. The move was part of a broader multimillion-dollar makeover by the mall to modernize.

Rich Barta suspects the efforts to spruce up other nearby Belk stores may underscore why it is shutting down in South Windermere. Barta, a property consultant with Core Properties in Charlotte, is helping the center's owner, Gould and Co. of Boston, find a tenant to replace Belk.

"This is a natural progression for centers like this all over the country," Barta said. While he wouldn't say exactly when Belk's was leaving, he noted that its long-term lease would shortly wind down. "Stores move around, upgrade and change strategies all the time. ... We'll find a good candidate to replace them."

Barta said he couldn't comment on contenders to move into the soon-to-be vacant retail space. Shop owners say they have heard that Gould is in talks to bring in a Staples or Office Max, but that could not be confirmed.

Susan O'Rourke, regional vice president and store manager at the Belk in Citadel Mall, said Wednesday that Belk would begin expanding its store in Mount Pleasant in February. The store will tack on an extra 20,000 square feet to its existing 60,000 square feet.

O'Rourke couldn't confirm whether the planned expansion in Mount Pleasant had anything to do with the decision to shut down at South Windermere. She referred all questions to the Belk corporate office in Charlotte. Calls for comment were not immediately returned Wednesday.

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, based in Charleston, speculated that the location of the store, ideal in years past, no longer worked.

The store's smaller size -- about 11,000 square feet -- also may have worked against it.

"I'm not familiar with Belk's situation, but it may be a case where the company wants to try and move its customers toward the bigger stores, where there is more selection," Beemer said. Most comparable department stores are three to six times bigger than the one at South Windermere. "The thinking may be that it is better to have them shop at a real Belk store than a junior one. They (Belk) may have a great lease there. Even so, the old space may mean it's not a good value for them."

Any effort to renovate the store could also be costly. Building to more modern codes would mean conforming with a host of new rules and regulations, such as fitting the building with an escalator to bring customers to the second floor, or making it more friendly to people with disabilities.

Missy Gold, the owner of Mister Don Shoes and Dance, said she was disappointed when she heard Belk might be leaving. Gold grew up in the area and has had her shop at the center for three decades.

Still, she says she's not nervous about how the move will affect her business because she hears the hoped-for new tenant should attract a lot of people to the center.

"The landlord, I'm certain, has big things planned for the building. He has always chosen the right business and right services mix since I have been here," Gold said. "What I hear is coming is the kind of store that has a broader range of customers and items everyone can use."

Allen Garfield, who owns a jewelry shop at the center, wasn't as optimistic.

"I hear they are talking about a Staples. Now Staples is a fine store, don't get me wrong. But we need a clothing store here or more stores for women. That's what will help us," said Garfield, who has run his shop at the center for 13 years.

Whatever the impact on local business, James Island resident Renie Frosberg said that for sentimental reasons, Belk's closing is upsetting.

"I was born in Charleston and this is my favorite shop. I come here at least once a month, and it is so good for those of us who live on the island," Frosberg said. "It is just one of those places you hate to see go. It has that feeling of the family. Going to the Citadel Mall just would be different."

Frosberg added that she has some family history wrapped up in the store.

"When my daughter was three, about 20 years ago ... we were shopping and she got away from me in the store," she recalled. "I was panic-stricken. So the store manager closed the front and back of the store for me, and everyone helped me look. We found her in the dressing room.

"To this day we still tell that story," he said.

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