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Editorial: Sears closing opens door for other uses of property

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Sears’ announcement that it is closing its store and auto center in Columbus was unfortunate news for the city.

The company has had a retail store here since 1929, and has been at its present location — near Brown and Third streets — since The Commons opened in 1973.

Its 31 employees, who are mostly part-time and hourly, fortunately have a few months to find and land their next job.

But with such a loss comes a golden opportunity to re-examine the best use of the 224,800 square feet — the combined total for the retail store, auto center and parking lot — and how that prime downtown real estate could benefit the city in a new way.

As it was, the current retail model was not working.

A company spokesman said the lease with Columbus Capital Foundation was not renewed in part due to the store’s poor financial performance. Parent company Sears Holdings announced Nov. 21 that its shareholders had lost $534 million during its third quarter of 2013.

The Sears spokesman also explained store closures are part of a transformation of the company business model.

A transformation of Sears’ space here is needed, too.

Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, said she wasn’t surprised by the news of the store closing, which will be complete by mid-March to early April. She said she had witnessed the cutback in product lines available locally. Also, Sears isn’t near other downtown retail. That makes it a destination point, not a place to capture causal browsers, a retail disadvantage.

That island feel for Sears happened when the original Commons and Commons Mall were demolished in 2008 and redeveloped, eventually reopening in June 2011.

The new Commons no longer had a lot of retail stores inside. Much of that was replaced by office space for the region’s biggest employer, Cummins Inc., which was expanding its downtown footprint. Most Commons retail stores closed or relocated to other locations, such as Viewpoint Books to the 500 block of Washington Street.

Some elements returned, but with facelifts, such as the indoor playground featuring the Luckey Climber and the YES Cinema. The Chaos I mechanical sculpture remained. Public performance space returned with a new look. Retail space for four restaurants was created.

But Sears remained basically the same, except growing smaller.

Now the question is, what would be the best use of that space?

Frey suggested offices for businesses, or even space for education or performances — which would support the downtown arts district.

Other uses that are being suggested include:

Meeting space for small conventions, associations and corporate in-house retreats.

A mini conference center.

A grocery store.

Those ideas have merit.

Lynn Lucas, executive director of the Columbus Area Visitors Center, said anything that brings more tourists and events to town would be wonderful.

Developer Tim Dora said anything that brought in small- to mid-sized groups for meetings would be a boost for his Hotel Indigo across the street.

The key to choosing the right use or uses is to include the community in the process, to encourage suggestions.

The viability of all ideas needs to be thoroughly considered against the needs of the community.

Most importantly, the process should be transparent to the public.

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