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Penney workers stunned by closing

Tuesday, October 7, 2003

Locals hit corporate hotline

"It was like a death in the family. I feel bad about my people having to deal with this, especially the way they learned about it."

Storm Lake manager of JC Penney Keith Winter said that the news of the store's closing was sudden and unexpected.

Penney's has been an anchor of the Storm Lake downtown for three generations, and despite a calling campaign organized by other businesspeople in town Monday, JC Penney corporate officials in Dallas, Texas confirmed that the decision has been made to close the store in January.

Employees told the Pilot-Tribune they were stunned by the news - as sad to see the loss of the familiar store for the community as they are upset to join the ranks of the unemployed themselves.

In a phone interview from the Penney's store in Carroll, Winter said that he had first heard of the closing on Thursday, as the owner of the property where Penney's is located, Dan Bertell of Spirit Lake, said the store would be closing. Winter confirmed the closing on Friday, and informed as many of the store's employees as he could reach that day, but some only heard of the closing through the media.

"This all happened so fast," Winter said. "This was confirmed by the landlord and none of us had any idea."

A call to Quentin Krenshaw at the Penney's corporate public relations offices in Dallas Monday confirmed the closing.

Krenshaw said he was "sorry that people would be losing their jobs and that Storm Lake was losing its store but it was unavoidable."

"The store will be closing on or about Jan. 17, 2004," he said. "It was based on a performance issue. The Storm Lake store was not meeting the company's objectives."

Krenshaw said the corporation's human resources team would try to place the store's employees in other Penney's stores. Winter said the store employed 18 full- and part-time associates.

When asked about how or why the story was leaked before the employees and manager knew, he said that "J.C. Penney properties was probably working 'in sync' with the landlord, letting him know that the lease would likely be cancelled."

Winter said he has been told it was purely a business decision, although he was surprised since the store seemed to be doing well.

Winter added he would have liked to have more time to tell his employees and help them work through the knowledge they were losing a store and their jobs.

"It all happened so fast, all the Times wanted was a scoop," he said. "I didn't even have time to call a formal store meeting to inform my staff of the news, so some of the staff found out about losing their jobs by reading about it on Saturday.

"It was like a death in the family. I feel bad about my people having to deal with this, especially the way they learned about it."

Employee Shirley Bright said it was sad the store was closing, that she had transferred down to Storm Lake 17 years ago when Penneys closed its Cherokee store.

"I don't think it was because of Wal-Mart or other big stores," she said. "People always came to Penney's to shop when they came to town. If anything having some other stores was good for business. Customers always came here because we carry quality clothes."

But Maggie Tewes, who will have worked at Penney's for seven years in January said she hated it (the closing).

"I think it's bad for the community, that it will take some of the traffic away from downtown," she said. "Penney's has always been a staple, here on this corner downtown.

"There's a lot of nostalgia that goes with the store. Everybody comes up to shop at Penney's."

Marilyn Monson of the Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce said that losing the store was "unfortunate for Storm Lake," but she hoped that the city realized it had a strong downtown with a good mix of merchandising.

"We're going to have to take on the challenge to fill that space," she said. "And the chamber and other business will try to help employees find jobs."

Monson said there is a customer service number to call and record questions and inquiries about the store's closing.

The number is 1-972-431-8200. An email address also is available at prmail@ jcpenney.com.

"It was a corporate decision to close the store," Monson said. "The goals and challenges of a larger company don't always jibe with the services and needs of a local community. Certainly our JC Penney's met those needs for us."

The internet reveals numerous such closings throughout the Nevada, Kansas and Texas regions, an details struggles to keep stores open in the East.

While the Storm Lake decision is not about the physical location, company insiders say, the building is aging and space limits crowd the racks of seasonal clothing, and it's two-story arrangement is not disability accessible.

Corporate officials said that they are not considering another site in Storm Lake, or the possibility of maintaining a catalogue station. Other northwest Iowa stores are not scheduled for closing, they said.

Some locals aren't willing to let the store go without a fight.

Longtime Storm Lake businesswoman Helen Hoffman, owner of Hoffman's Flower and Candle Shop just across Lake Avenue from the plate glass storefront of Penney's, is heading up a campaign to get business and finance leaders to call the Penney corporate headquarters in an effort to convince them to keep from closing the Storm Lake store.

" I called Penney's corporate offices and asked if there is anything we can do to make a relocation situation unnecessary. They told me it wasn't as much an issue with the current location as one of business," she said.

Since it currently looks like a 'lost cause,' there's nothing to lose in having the community put some pressure on the company to try to keep a store in Storm Lake, she said. "I'm encouraging people to call the corporate office and tell them if they think Penney's should stay in Storm Lake," Hoffman said.

She said she feels the store is vital to the rest of the downtown community.

"We need the products they sell, especially things like children's clothing. We need the traffic they bring in," she added. "I can look across the street and see people flowing in and out all the time. That has an impact on the whole downtown. They've been a good anchor store for us for way over 50 years in that location."

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