Macy’s will pull up the anchor on downtown Walla Walla’s retail core when it closes its store in the historic Liberty Theater.
The Cincinnati-based company will begin a clearance sale this month that is expected to run about eight to 12 weeks. A closure date was not specified.
Employees were reportedly notified Monday. A company media relations director confirmed the closure.
“The decision to close a store is always a difficult one, but Macy’s is proud to have served the Walla Walla community over the past 76 years,” the announcement said, referring to the store’s long history before its acquisition by Macy’s.
The statement is a boiler plate message released by Macy’s on behalf of its store closures, including an announcement last fall for its landmark downtown Seattle spot and Monday for stores all over the country. It is tailored to each community to represent how long the company has operated there and to encourage shoppers to redirect their business to the nearest Macy’s store.
In this case, that’s the store at Columbia Center in Kennewick, where Walla Walla officials say local sales taxes leak to outshopping an hour away.
Development of shopping options at retail strip Walla Walla Town Center appears to have recovered some of that leakage. But whether it also hurt stores such as Macy’s enough to lead to the decision is not clear, Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said.
In 2017, the community lost an estimated $183 million in sales tax leakage, according to data from the Port of Walla Walla. That money is what’s calculated as spent outside of the community on retail goods — everything from motor vehicles to furniture, clothing to books.
In 2018 came the opening of Walla Walla Town Center’s first store in April. It was followed throughout the year with the introduction of seven more national big box retailers in the community.
For the first time in history, Walla Walla exceeded $1 billion in retail sales in 2018, according to Walla Walla Trends data. The 10.4% spike in taxable retail sales for Walla Walla between 2017 and 2018 was the largest increase since 2004-’05 and outpaced the state’s annual growth rate of 9.6%.
Macy’s meanwhile has been closing stores since 2016. That year, the company announced its plan to close 100 stores across the country as part of a downsizing strategy against the rising tide of online competition.
Initially, the company focused on locations where leases were ending.
But in the case of the Walla Walla store, Macy’s owns the property at 54 E. Main St., adding another layer of uncertainty about what may be the future for downtown retail.
“This is absolutely not good news and not what we wanted to hear,” Shawa said.
The city manager was caught off-guard by word of the local closure, though national reports about the company certainly elicited questions about its long-term future here, he acknowledged.
“This is really disturbing news, especially in January,” Shawa said. “We’re starting a new year, and this is probably the most significant (retail) building on downtown’s Main Street.”
He also is optimistic that the Walla Walla brand and its Main Street are strong enough to rebound.
“Our future is very bright,” he said.
A search for Macy’s closures Monday showed headlines similar to Walla Walla’s in numerous communities: Helena, Mont.; Meriden, Conn.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Prairie Village, Kan.; Salisbury, Md.; and even the company’s own hometown of Cincinnati, among others.
Emily Workman, Macy’s media relations director for the Northwest and Southwest regions, said the store employs about 50 people at 54 E. Main St.
She said regular, nonseasonal employees will be eligible for severance, including outplacement resources.
She had no information to share, however, on plans for the property.
The closure comes less than a year after the losses of Kmart and Shopko stores in Walla Walla. Although the community gained off-price chains Ross Dress for Less and Marshalls, many residents responding to news of the closure on social media observed that Macy’s is the last traditional store of its kind that bridges the gap in family clothing between Walmart in College Place and independent boutique shopping in Walla Walla.
Macy’s was also the last vestige downtown of regional and national retailers that served the community during a more robust retail era that included J.J. Newberry’s, JCPenney and Sears, as well as independent stores.
Started first as A.M. Jensen Co. in 1920, the spot offered women’s dresses and top coats, boys clothing on the balcony, men’s shoes near the Main Street door and groceries in the 12-foot deep basement, which at the time was known as the largest ever excavated in Walla Walla, according to archives.
The Bon Marche, a Northwest icon, came in the mid-1940s, according to the figure offered by Macy’s.
In 1991, a massive revitalization project of the historic Liberty Theater — squeezed out of the movie market by multiplex cinemas in the 1980s — was remodeled for the expanded Bon store.
That company was later purchased by Federated Department Stores, owner of Macy’s. The company transitioned its stores over time from Bon Marche to Bon-Macy’s and finally to the Macy’s brand in 2005.
The Bon years, former store Manager Libby Frazier said, were marked by attention to service and experience. She managed the store from 1978 to 1997 and counted those qualities as a hallmark of shopping downtown. It’s a focus that appears to be changing with the times, she lamented.
“It’s a sad day for Walla Walla to see the closing of Macy’s,” Frazier said in a message this morning. “We cared so much about our customers and our community. We created an experience — not just shopping.”
She pointed to the “Celebration of Caring” charity event as an example.
“We had food and music, and the employees were dressed in gowns and tuxedos,” she recalled. “It was a gala event. We donated 10% of our sales to United Way from that evening. Hundreds of people came out and shopped and cheered for their favorite community leader in our big fashion show.
“It was fun for everyone — we embraced the community and they returned their love and support in spades. Sadly, this is a sign of our changing times in retail — less personal, more clicks.”
How the space — easily the largest for retail downtown — will change is unknown. Many on social media wondered if it could be reverted back to a theater. Others worried through posts that Walla Walla may not be able to attract another retailer of its kind.
Not far on Alder Street, Goodwill will also make a move away from downtown Walla Walla. What appears to be the closure of Olive leaves another question mark for downtown.
Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Bonnie Bowton said Monday the decision is a sad one for the community.
“It certainly will impact our downtown,” she said. “Macy’s has always been an anchor store. I think everybody will miss it.”
The transition will come for the retail spot as the Foundation experiences a change of its own. Bowton is set to retire, and a new executive director will have a challenge out of the gate.
Macy’s has been a longtime sponsor of the Holiday Parade of Lights. Bowton said the parade will live on but will have to find a new sponsor to help support it. She was optimistic it can be done. The sponsorship is valued around $3,000 and primarily covers logistics of marketing, advertising and awards.
“I don’t foresee the parade going away. Everyone loves it,” Bowton said. “Obviously, it won’t be the Macy’s Parade of Lights.”