Area residents, community leaders grapple with J.C. Penney closure

Longtime J.C. Penney employee Cindy LaFleur stands Wednesday in front of the Owosso store. LaFleur is one of many residents expressing sadness about the announcement that the county’s only department store is permanently closing.

OWOSSO — The announcement that the Owosso J.C. Penney — the only department store in Shiawassee County — is closing its doors for good has residents and community leaders expressing sadness as well as hope that the change will lead to new opportunities to improve the downtown area.

Many people are wishing they didn’t have to say goodbye to the Owosso J.C. Penney, 201 S. Washington St., which after a 102-year run is shuttering this fall as part of the company’s bankruptcy restructuring.

“I’m devastated,” said Cindy LaFleur of Owosso, who has worked at J.C. Penney for a decade. “It’s the only department store to shop for clothing in Shiawassee County. Everybody I work with is really sad and disappointed. They need their jobs.”

LaFleur said she knew there was a chance the Owosso store would close after the Plano, Texas-based corporate J.C. Penney announced a first wave of store-shuttering (136 locations) earlier this month. Her fears were realized Monday, when the company said it was closing 13 more locations, including the Owosso store and six others in Michigan.

“I’m not really surprised because after we saw the first closures during this (coronavirus) pandemic, I realized that J.C. Penney was in more trouble than I knew,” LaFleur said. “It’s heartbreaking, because the store has been here so long and I thought we did such good business there. It’s just a really sad day for Owosso.”

Others said they believe sales at the Owosso store have been flagging for some time. Store manager Robin Wackerly has declined to comment to The Argus-Press about the coming closure.

“It is unfortunate for us to lose a company like J.C. Penney,” Shiawassee Regional Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Jeff Deason said. “They have been a staple of our downtown for many years. Having said that, store sales have been in decline for quite some time, management was not involved in the local business community, nor was there any action taken by the company to engage local buyers in what they really want or need.

“This was not an unexpected closing and is reflective of large retailers moving away from brick-and-mortar strategy,” Deason continued. “The key for us now is to turn that large space into something that works for our community and is a contributor to our local economy. There are already some very positive ideas being explored for that.”

Josh Adams, executive director of Owosso Main Street/Downtown Development Authority, said the closure is a loss for the DDA district, but he sees a rebound ahead as small business owners shift toward a mix of brick-and-mortar stores and online platforms.

“J.C. Penney is one of the anchor businesses in downtown. It’s a hard hit for the community,” Adams said. “But the national company is dealing with the trend of transitioning from retail stores to online sales. (Closing the Owosso store) is part of its restructuring.”

Adams said he was somewhat “shocked” about the announcement “from an infrastructure point of view,” given the low amount of rent J.C. Penney pays for the building it occupies, which is owned by a group of local partners. But he said he believes the change has less to do with the location than the shift to online sales.

He said the closure will prompt downtown business owners to take a closer look at shopping trends, and recognize that most people enjoy walking and getting the full retail shopping experience as well as the convenience of online shopping.

“We have to make sure our businesses have an online revenue stream,” he said.

While Adams said he can’t speak to the future of the J.C. Penney building, he said Owosso Main Street/DDA’s approach to filling large vacant buildings is encouraging indoors farmers markets, “incubator” businesses that rent booths until they’re ready to move into brick-and-mortar stores and shops that make goods on site.

The Owosso business community “is always looking at the glass half full, at how we can use this opportunity,” Adams said. “We grieve the loss of J.C. Penney, but we won’t let it hold us back.”

Many residents hold cherished memories of the department store, some dating back to its original location, 115 S. Washington St. The store moved to its current spot in 1985.

“I’ve been shopping in that store for 50 years,” Owosso resident Karen Horn said. “I remember buying my boys blue jeans with double knees. They cost $8 each, a lot of money at the time. I always bought their school clothes there. Sometimes, Penney’s was the only place you could find the thing you needed.

“Oh, my goodness, it’s closing!” she said, having just been told about the closure. “That’s another empty big building in downtown Owosso.”

Nick Pidek, owner of Foster Coffee and an Owosso City Council member, said he has been going to J.C. Penney since he was a kid doing back-to-school shopping, and still purchases shoes and other items there.

“I’m saddened, obviously, to hear that any business is leaving Owosso,” he said. “Owosso needs more businesses to open, not close. But we can’t control what large corporations do. I’m also hopeful and excited for the next wave of entrepreneurs in this community. Yes, it’s a loss but the closure also opens new opportunities for the future.”

Local business owner Casey Voss said she hopes residents don’t place all the blame for the closure on the COVID-19 shutdown.

“COVID might have pushed the decision but it’s not all COVID-related,” Voss said. “I think J.C. Penney has been struggling. So many businesses have gone online. If people (in this community) want a clothing store downtown, they have to shop at it. The last few times I shopped at J.C. Penney, the store wasn’t very busy.”

J.C. Penney, a retailer for 118 years, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May, citing declining sales figures and the ongoing pandemic as reasons for reorganizing. The company has said that before it’s all over, they plan to shutter 242 stores nationwide.

“The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for our families, our loved ones, our communities and our country,” Penney’s CEO Jill Solta previously told the Associated Press. “As a result, the American retail industry has experienced a profoundly different new reality, requiring J.C. Penney to make difficult decisions in running our business to protect the safety of our associates and customers and the future of our company.”

The Owosso J.C. Penney opened on March 30, 1918 — the second store to open in Michigan and among the 20 J.C. Penneys to open in 1918.

Closing sales at the latest round of shuttering stores, including Owosso, are expected to begin about July 3 and last 10 to 16 weeks, a company official has said.

The other Michigan stores set to close are located in Alma, Bay City, Big Rapids, Greenville, Mount Pleasant and Okemos.

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