Originally created 01/03/01

Regency Mall sees crowds dwindle



In more ways than one, the party's over for Regency Mall.

On New Year's Eve, the mall had more people inside it than it has had in a long time. The estimated 1,500 revelers were part of a celebration sponsored collectively by downtown merchants.

It may have been a last hurrah of sorts. Last week, Montgomery Ward Inc. announced it would eliminate all of its department stores as part of a Chapter 11 filing.

The local store, which has not released a specific date of closing, is the only anchor left at the mall. Two other, smaller retail stores remain: The Foot Locker and locally owned International Formal Wear.

Asked about future plans for the shoe store, a corporate spokeswoman for The Foot Locker could not give a definitive answer Tuesday. An employee at the formal wear store, which keeps only afternoon hours, declined comment.

Richmond County, rounding out the list of tenants, makes use of two former retail spaces in the building. The government operates its marshal's office and a health department teen clinic on the upper level.

Preparing for the inevitable, Wards store employees Tuesday posted massive signs visible through the doors at the entrance. They read "GOING OUT OF BUSINESS" and "ENTIRE STORE ON SALE."

Inside, checks are discouraged. Customers can pay with cash or credit card, and all sales are final.

Bare spots along shelves already have started to form on the department store's ground floor. Customers are bargain-buying at 50 percent off or better.

Employees remain busy. Some said they plan to try to find other jobs in retail.

"What else can you do?" one worker said, adding that personnel were instructed not to give out any store information to the media.

She said she would stay at the store until the end.

For news media, the decision by General Electric Co.'s GE Capital Unit to divest itself of the struggling Wards stores has resulted in a virtual information blackout. Local store management has referred inquiries to the corporate office in Chicago. The media relations department there has not returned calls to The Augusta Chronicle since the Thursday's announcement.

In stark contrast to the activity at Wards, people are eerily absent within the mall, considering Regency's sprawling 803,355-square-foot size.

Regardless of the shuttered store fronts and neon signs that may never be lit again, the mall attempts a stiff upper lip. Music fills the building. Holiday decorations remain.

The only signs that teens ever frequented Regency heavily are at the clinic and the shoe store. In a sense, the two tenants feed off each other.

The clinic offers subsidized physical exams, contraceptives and health screenings and is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Theotis Lewis, The Foot Locker's manager, said many of the teen-agers stop at the shoe store before or after they visit the clinic, where they can receive coupons for athletic wear.

Reach Eric Williamson at (706) 828-3904.