HOPES AND SEARS: Local installation of national department store chain planning to continue operations

The Aurora Sears department store will continue operations as the national chain files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Philip B. Poston/Sentinel

The Sears at the Aurora Town Center mall won’t be among the 142 stores across the nation the company will close by the end of the year, but city officials and mall owners are watching the company’s finances closely and say redevelopment plans are already in the works.

Sears announced last week it’d close the Sears and Kmart stores as the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Two of those locations will be in the Denver metro region — one in Centennial and the other in Lakewood. No Kmarts are set to close in Colorado.

For now, the Aurora Sears store is doing OK in terms of sales numbers, according to Aurora chamber of commerce president Kevin Hougan. Sales tax data specific to Sears isn’t available from the city, but the Aurora Town Center is: over the past few years, the Aurora Town Center has increasingly raked in more sales tax. In 2010, the mall collected $4.7 million, that climbed to $5.67 million last year.

Tim Gonerka, retail specialist for the city, said the loss of the Aurora Sears wouldn’t be as much of a shock to the commercial ecosystem as it would have been a decade or so ago.

“Everybody pretty much understands Sears will be closing all of its doors and all of its operations,” he said. “Retailers inside the mall and customers of the mall probably won’t be as surprised … as they would have been back in the day.”

He said the potential loss of Sears likely won’t have a major impact on other retailers at the mall, but could spur minor hindrances for the shops that immediately abut the anchor store.

“But that’s just natural, and that’s more location-driven, not mall-wide,” Gonerka said.

The city has not received any specific complaints or concerns regarding the possible exodus of Sears, according to Gonerka.

That Sears has slowly been siphoning some of its most popular products and appliances to other national retailers, such as Home Depot and J.C. Penney, will help stem the economic pain, Gonerka said.

In the meantime, the Aurora Sears continues to be one of the most profitable stores in the state, and has helped buoy the Aurora Mall to superb economic performance, Gonerka said.

“The mall’s doing more productive sales per square foot than they ever have in their history,” Gonerka said. “There are a lot of pieces in place that will speak to (Sable and Alameda) being a powerful potential site for someone to (develop) something interesting.”

Gonerka said the city has been in talks with the new owners of the Aurora Mall in an effort to preemptively outline a future for the mall post-Sears. He said the owners have expressed interest in pursuing a major overhaul of the retail center, a move that could revamp the city’s economic and governmental center, and help ignite long-discussed plans for a “downtown Aurora.”

“They won’t let it just sit vacant,” Gonerka said. “There actually probably will be some development.”

The Sears store is an anchor for the mall, just off of Alameda Parkway near where some local leaders envision a downtown area in the future.

Kim Green, a spokeswoman for Washington Prime Group, which owns the Town Center at Aurora, said the company bought the Sears storefront and is already working on future plans for the space.

“Washington Prime Group, the parent company of Town Center at Aurora, is in active planning and negotiations to transform the Sears space currently occupied by Sears. Washington Prime Group proactively negotiated an early termination of the lease to gain control of the real estate for future redevelopment efforts,” Green said in an email. “The redevelopment opportunity at Town Center at Aurora demonstrates our commitment to the community, while illustrating our mandate to diversify tenancy and strengthen this property as the dominant town center within the Aurora area. We are excited about the project and will announce details in the future.”

Some hope that space will play into what the area could become: a downtown hub, complete with art and culture opportunities, shopping and restaurants that aren’t chain.

Councilwoman Angela Lawson sees the development of a downtown in that area that has some sort of entertainment venue that can be a gathering place for people across the economic spectrum.

“When you have a venue, everybody is coming — people from all economies, and I think that’s great,” she said. “I’m hoping we can get to that level.”

At recent meetings, the city council has discussed various possibilities surrounding a true downtown area. For years, leaders have floated the idea in other parts of the city, too — out east, where new development is slated, or around the East Colfax Avenue corridor, once a tourist hub for families driving across the West on vacation.

Lawson said making a downtown area near the mall that is inclusive of all price points would take some creativity and work, but would make Aurora unique. She’s been a regular advocate of balancing new development with the city’s pre-existing, suburban bones.

“I think shiny things are great, but I’m also really concerned about what we have and how we can revamp that,” she said. “To me, if we don’t watch out what we’re doing, we can’t change it. I advocate having balance because if we’re talking about a downtown, it should benefit everybody.”