Despite nearly a decade of decline, owners of the Kenai Mall are optimistic that things will be picking up in the building that once was the center of town.
The message Carr Gottstein Properties executive Bob Martin brought to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce at its weekly luncheon Wednesday was one of enthusiasm for revitalizing the 32-year-old mall.
Martin talked about the changing face of malls in the United States and repeated what was reported earlier that many malls are turning storefronts to the outside, rather than all inside, facing a common hall.
After Carr Gottstein Foods -- which already had been sold to an Outside interest -- decided to move out of the Kenai Mall into its own store at its present location, followed by Fred Meyer, Martin said Carr Gottstein Properties realized the Kenai Mall would never be the same.
"It was a tough decision when we decided to build the Job Center through the common hall," Martin said.
Doing that, he said, forced Carr Gottstein to abandon the inside mall concept.
The Job Center, a collection of state of Alaska agencies, occupies 15,000 square feet at the back of the mall.
Martin cleared up any confusion as to what Carr Gottstein Properties was, saying it was not sold to Larry Green and Associates of Los Angeles when the grocery store chain was in 1990, and therefore was not part of the deal when Safeway bought out Carrs last year.
He also made cryptic comments regarding a possible new tenant to anchor the east end of the 100,000-square-foot mall, much like the new Sears store has on the west end.
"We have a new prospect that looks like it will be a good fit with Sears," Martin said.
He declined to say who the prospect might be, citing the early stage negotiations are in.
He did say Carr Gottstein Properties was thrilled to have Sears in the mall, and he introduced Bryan Lien, the new owner, to the chamber audience.
Lien said he had been the manager of the Wasilla Sears when he was transferred to Soldotna to close down that store. He accomplished his job, but also saw a possibility to build a new Sears.
The former Sears store in Soldotna was owned by Sears, Roebuck and Co. of Chicago, while the new one in Kenai is owned by Lien.
"I was lucky to be selected as the owner-operator," Lien said.
He explained that while he owns the store, Sears supplies the inventory and sets the prices. He said that was the reason the store lost some of its selection from its Soldotna location and does not carry clothing.
"It would take the whole mall to carry a clothing line," Lien said.
He said the product format his store follows is based on a model from Sears, and that he might be able to expand the selection depending on demand. Such expansion could include bed and bath items, auto supply and carpeting.
"We have plenty of space to expand," Lien said.
The store has a wide selection of large kitchen appliances, power tools, lawn mowers, televisions and other home electronics.
He described the Kenai Mall location as ideal for other reasons, too, including location and the ease of setting up for retail.
"Since Fred Meyer had been in there, it was not hard to put a Sears in," he said.
He was asked why he had not copied such stores as Big Kmart and Carrs Quality Center and install a large highway-side lighted sign. Lien said it was just a matter of expense to run electricity to the road, something neither he nor Carr Gottstein Properties was willing to do. He held out the possibility of doing that someday, but said, in the meantime, he plans on having the exiting sign above the front door lighted so passers-by could better tell when the store is open.
Oddly, he told the audience that he would like nothing more than to be closed down by Sears.
"It would be a feather in my cap if Sears closed me down and put in a full-line store," Lien said. "It would say to me that I ran this store well."
He said the store would have to do pretty good business to prompt Sears, Roebuck to buy him out. He cited the Wasilla Sears, which does $6 million of business a year, as a store that the parent company is not sure about replacing with a full line store.
Despite only being in its present location for a matter of weeks and what he called advertising miscues, Lien said business has been good at the new location.
"It started slow, but it should turn out very well," he said.
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