JCPenney, a retail giant that has been operating in Columbus for nearly a century, will close its doors at FairOaks Mall in a few months.

J.C. Penney launched its Columbus footprint in a downtown location at 309 Washington St. in 1924, in a portion of the Bassett building.

The chain rose to prominence nationally and in the 1950s was the world’s largest retailer with more than 1,600 stores.

Penney’s expanded in Columbus in 1969 with a move to the Columbus Shopping Center on National and Beam roads, before moving to its current mall location late in 1989 to become one of the anchor department stores.

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At the start of this year, JCPenney had 1,014 stores across the nation — a number that will decrease by 138 in June as the company downsizes to increase company growth and long-term profitability, according to a statement Friday from its corporate headquarters in Plano, Texas.

About 25 people who are employed at the Columbus store are among an estimated 5,000 who will lose their jobs with the closings nationwide, the company said.

The announcement comes just a few weeks after FairOaks learned that it was also losing the Kirlin’s Hallmark store in April, a store that had been a mainstay in the mall since 1990.

“What a bummer,” said Mary Jane Hooker, Columbus, who was perusing the clearance items at Kirlin’s when she found out about the Penney’s announcement Friday afternoon. “It makes you wonder what will happen to the mall.”

JCPenney said the stores on the closing list, including Columbus, will begin the liquidation process April 17.

Local store officials referred all questions about the closing to the company’s media relations department in Plano, Texas, which was taking voice-mail messages after the announcement.

Kirlin’s manager Stephanie Crosby, said she wasn’t surprised by the announcement.

“Financially, it’s tough to have a business anymore,” she said.

In addition to Kirlin’s and JCPenney, the mall is losing the J Nicole clothing store, where a sign on Friday said it was in the final weeks of clearance sales before closing.

About 20 to 25 people were in the mall Friday afternoon, the first week of spring break for Columbus. Many of them were walkers who weren’t stopping to shop at the stores.

Bath and Body Works was the busiest store in the mall early Friday afternoon, with three to four customers lined up at the cash register.

Danielle Bello of Columbus, said she rarely goes into FairOaks except to shop at Bath and Body Works.

“There’s nothing in this mall,” she said.

Three years ago, FairOaks had about 20 of its 55 storefronts operating — and the count is about the same now. The mall has been hosting a winter farmer’s market in the concourse area on Saturdays to generate more foot traffic into the facility.

FairOaks Mall officials were notified Thursday of JCPenney’s decision to close the 34,000-square-foot Columbus store, said Kim Eckrote-Showalter, mall manager.

Eckrote-Showalter called the upcoming closing Penney’s sad for the mall and for Columbus.

“They were one of the original tenants,” Eckrote-Showalter said.

The closing announcement extends a period of transition for the mall.

Dunham Sports opened as an anchor store in May 2015, filling a space that had been left by original tenant Kmart in April 2014.

Dunham’s decision to move into the 86,500-square-foot former Kmart location as one of the company’s five largest stores was a significant success for the mall, and at the time was described as a possible trigger for a renaissance to build foot traffic in the facility.

The third FairOaks Mall anchor store is Carson’s department store.

Mall officials are optimistic that the same strategy they used when Dunham took over Kmart’s retail location will work again to fill the JCPenney space with another anchor store.

“The JCPenney’s space is a prime location,” Eckrote-Showalter said. “We have three or four possible tenants on our radar for the space.”

Mall officials don’t want to pigeonhole who might be interested in the anchor space at the mall, saying they will consider all options and what might work for a prospective tenant, Eckrote-Showalter said.

Concern remains for the JCPenney employees who are facing a job loss and uncertainty about the retail climate locally.

“These are lives that are being affected,” Eckrote-Showalter said. “These people are our friends. They are like family to us.”

Corporate statement

The company initiated a voluntary early retirement program for about 6,000 eligible employees prior to the store closing announcement, a press release from JCPenney said.

“We understand that closing stores will impact the lives of many hard-working associates,” said Marvin R. Ellison, JCPenney chairman and CEO. “By coordinating the timing of these two events, we can expect to see a net increase in hiring as the number of full-time associates expected to take advantage of the early retirement incentive will far exceed the number of full-time positions affected by the store closures.”

Employees who are affected by the store closings, and a distribution center in Lakeland, Florida, will receive separation benefits, which includes assistance identifying other employment opportunities and outplacement services, the company said.

Ellison said the decision to close the 138 stores would allow the company to adjust its business to effectively compete against the growing threat of online retailing.

“Maintaining a large store base gives us a competitive advantage in the evolving retail landscape since our physical stores are a destination for personalized beauty offerings, a broad array of special sizes, affordable private brands and quality home goods and services,” Ellison said.

Closing the stores represents losing about 13 to 14 percent of the company’s store portfolio, but represents less than 5 percent of the company’s annual sales, the company said.

The stores named for closing either require significant capital to achieve the company’s new brand standard or are minimally cash-flow-positive related to other stores, the company said.

Comparable sales performance for the closing stores was significantly below the remaining store base and the closing stores operate at a much higher expense rate given their lack of productivity, the company said.

Annual cost savings from the closings are estimated at $200 million, the company said.

Other Indiana JCPenney locations closing include stores in Connersville, Huntington, Jasper and Logansport.

“Closing a store is never an easy decision, especially given the local impact on valued employees and our most loyal shoppers,” Ellison said. “While any actions that reduce or exclude our presence in communities across the country is always difficult, it is essential that JCPenney continues to evolve in order to achieve long-term growth and profitability and deliver on shareholder value.”

Penney history in Columbus

1924: J.C. Penney opens at 309 Washington St. in a portion of the Bassett building.

1929: Plans unveiled to move store from the corner of Fourth and Washington streets into the room formerly occupied by F. Rosenbush clothing store.

1933: 6,000 square feet of floor space added.

1938: New owners W.W. and A.T. Wehrle of Newark, Ohio, plan to enlarge the building.

1952: Columbus store marks chain’s 50th anniversary. At the time, J.C. Penney was largest merchandising operation in the world with more than 1,600 stores and 70,000 employees.

1953: Remodeled, installed fluorescent light fixtures on all three floors, replaced wooden floors with brown asphalt tile.

1964: Plans unveiled to move J.C. Penney store into proposed Columbus Shopping Center at National and Beam roads; new store to feature 49,200 square feet of shopping space and a free-standing auto center.

1969: Corporate office decides to open stores on Sundays after Sears Roebuck & Co. announced same plans.

1969: J.C. Penney opens new store in Columbus Shopping Center.

1969: Auto center opens.

1977: Remodeled, added jewelry department and enclosed cosmetics department.

1983: Closed auto center.

1985: Company unveils plans to move to 25th Street into yet-to-be-developed mall, now Fair Oaks Mall.

1989: Penney store opens as one of the anchors of FairOaks Mall on 25th Street.

March 17, 2017: Company announces plans to close 138 JCPenney stores nationwide, including one in Columbus.

Indiana stores slated to close

Five Indiana JCPenney stores are among 138 nationwide that will close, according to a company announcement Friday. They are:

  • FairOaks Mall, Columbus
  • Connersville Plaza
  • Huntington Plaza
  • Jasper Manor Center
  • Logansport Mall

Most of the stores will begin the liquidation process April 17, the company announced.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.