Originally created 12/30/00

Residents dread loss of Wards



Montgomery Ward department stores may be closing because of waning overall sales, but one thing is clear: Local interest is not to blame.

The Wards at Regency Mall, the last anchor tenant at the floundering property, was busy as usual Friday afternoon - despite the news of Montgomery Ward Inc.'s latest Chapter 11 filing for bankruptcy protection.

Slumping national sales during the holiday season were attributed as the clincher for the decision to close the stores.

"I've been shopping here since Day 1," said Augusta resident Terry Hendrick, waxing nostalgic. "I used to buy all my children's clothes here."

Day 1 was July 27, 1978. The mall flourished for years after, but as affluent residents moved westward, so did their dollars.

These days, Regency has only a smattering of other tenants, including The Foot Locker, International Formal Wear and a teen center.

The future of the property, owned by businessman Haywood Whichard, is uncertain without Montgomery Ward.

"They have things here that you can't find anywhere else," Ms. Hendrick said. She propped up a vertical blind as an example as she waited for her ride to come.

"It's hard to believe the mall here can't prosper," she said, her voice tinged with frustration.

Other shoppers agreed the store offers affordably priced, quality items that can't be found at other stores. Many emerged from the store Friday with full shopping bags - and not from after-Christmas exchanges. These purchases had less do with the holidays than pure store loyalty.

"It's a terrible loss in two, perhaps even three ways," Augusta Mayor Bob Young said. "The mall is losing business, people are losing jobs, and people in that trade area are losing a place to shop."

He said he gives Montgomery Ward, which owns its space at the mall, credit for staying when it might have been tempting to relocate along with the rest of the retail migration.

"It's really a testament to Montgomery Ward. They didn't have any presence in the Augusta market prior to Regency Mall," the mayor said. "I would hope the people in Augusta understand this is a corporate decision and not a lack of support of the people in Augusta for Montgomery Ward."

Although the Chicago-based retailer, owned by General Electric Co., announced Thursday it would close all of its stores, which span 30 states, the company has yet to file with the Georgia Department of Labor. The company also has a store in Columbus.

Information released by Montgomery Ward said employees will be phased out in the first two quarters of 2001. No specific closing dates have been given.

John Ard of the Georgia Department of Labor said he has no figure on the number of Augusta employees that will be affected by the closing. Montgomery Ward's corporate office, to which inquiries were referred, did not return calls to Mr. Ard or The Augusta Chronicle.

Mr. Ard said the Columbus store employs 138 people, and that Augusta and Columbus are similarly sized markets. A corporate source in 1997 said the local count of employees was about 100.

Mr. Young said, should the mall property come available, he still supports a proposed project that would convert the space into such uses as call centers, a bus station or government offices. He said Wards' pulling out may hasten that plan. Supporters have dubbed the possible site Rocky Creek Town Center.

As for Wards, Mr. Young said, "They may be the proverbial last one to turn out the light."

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.