Closings don't reflect economy

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AIKEN --- Goody's Family Clothing is the latest big box retailer in three years in the Aiken Exchange shopping center on Whiskey Road to close its doors, but city officials say Aiken's economy is not to blame.

"I don't think it's the economics of our area," City Manager Roger LeDuc said. "I think it's the economics, overall, of those companies."

Aiken Exchange used to be a thriving shopping center, featuring Target, PetsMart, Goody's, Michael's Arts and Crafts and Pier 1 Imports. But those days are gone. Sandwiched in between Target and PetsMart are two vacant stores -- one with brown water-stained paper covering the windows -- and a third store covered in large, red and yellow going-out-of-business signs.

Last week, Goody's announced it was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and was closing 69 under-performing stores.

The Pier 1 store closed in 2006. It was sacrificed along with about 70 others the struggling home-decor retailer closed as part of a strategy to avoid bankruptcy.

A year earlier, Michael's Arts and Crafts went out of business, but not because of financial problems within the company. Aiken Planning Director Ed Evans said the opening of rival company Hobby Lobby's store on Whiskey Road might have been a factor in the Michael's closing.

Since Pier 1 and Michael's closed, both stores have remained vacant, and the shopping center has had a difficult time attracting new tenants.

The nearly empty shopping center, anchored by Target at one end and PetsMart at the other, is an anomaly in an area bustling with construction of new stores and shopping centers.

"We're still seeing building permits for new houses coming in, and we're seeing a number of new commercial sites being built on -- Checkers, Walgreens, Books-A-Million -- all within a couple of blocks of that same shopping center," Mr. LeDuc said.

Mr. Evans said the shopping center's location on Whiskey Road near Aiken Mall is a good location, but he hasn't heard of any potential new tenants "or anything going on with that shopping center, except people leaving."

Mr. LeDuc speculated retailers might not be showing interest in the shopping center because it sits back from the road.

Another possibility is some of the new stores, such as Walgreens at the corner of Dougherty and Whiskey roads, are interested in building their own space, preferring a stand-alone location.

Construction on Aiken's only Walgreens is nearly complete, and Mr. LeDuc said the company has approached the city with plans to build another store near the Wal-Mart on Richland Avenue.

"Books-A-Million is building right onto the mall near Sears; right behind the movie theater, a brand new four-story hotel is going up, the Hilton Gardens; and they're clearing ground for a new building near Old Navy," the city manager said. "Growth is happening. It just shows that the economics of our area must be going fairly well."

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.

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