Fort Atkinson Kmart

The Fort Atkinson Kmart store will close its doors for good in January, following a company trend in recent years.

The announcement came Thursday as part of several Kmart closings taking place across the country during the next several months. Also reported Thursday were the closures of stores in Sterling, Ill., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

Howard Riefs, the director of corporate communications at Sears Holding Corp., Kmart’s parent company, said a statement that “the store closures are part of a series of actions we’re taking to reduce ongoing expenses, adjust our asset base and accelerate the transformation of our business model. These actions will better enable us to focus our investments on serving our customers and members through integrated retail — at the store, online and in the home.”

The Fort Atkinson Kmart is slated to begin its liquidation advertising campaign on Oct. 27, with a store closing date set for mid-January 2014. Until then, the store will remain open for customers.

The Fort Atkinson store employs 51 people. According to Riefs, they will have an opportunity to apply for positions at other Kmart and Sears stores.

Last month, Sears Holding Corp. also announced the closing of a Kmart store in Brookfield, bringing the total number of Kmarts in the State of Wisconsin to 26 after Fort Atkinson’s becomes vacant.

The company operated 33 stores in the state in 2008 before slowly decreasing that number over the past five years.

The Fort Atkinson store opened in March 1979 as the first business in the then-new State Highway 26 Kmart Plaza shopping center. At its opening, the outlet boasted approximately 55,000 square feet and employed 60 people full time.

The store was the second discount department store in the city, after a Copps Department Store built on the south side of town in 1973.

Copps closed its department stores in 1984 to focus solely on groceries and the Fort Atkinson location was purchased by ShopKo, which has operated the store since that time. ShopKo’s opening brought 180 new jobs for area residents.

Kmart’s departure leaves the long-beleaguered northside development in an even worse position. The once-lively strip mall was constructed in 1977 and housed several retail outlets throughout the past few decades, including a Piggly Wiggly Supermarket, video rental outlet and a “dollar store.”

Today, traffic to the building is driven only by Kmart and the remaining two other tenants, Radio Shack and the Riverfront Family Restaurant, while other storefronts sit vacant.

Smith Motors, a car dealership operated adjacent to the Kmart Plaza since 1982, shut its doors in 2011, leaving yet another nearby building vacant.

Many in town, including Fort Atkinson Area Chamber of Commerce President Diane Hrobsky, have blamed the drop in business there to construction of the State Highway 26 bypass in 1995 that detoured most traffic around area businesses.

“I am sure that it probably does go back to the bypass because that commercial district has been floundering on that north interchange for a long time,” Hrobsky said.

Even as surrounding businesses began to close their doors, the store underwent a transformation in 2000 to the “Big Kmart” format. A 10-week, $500,000 renovation brought a new look and the introduction of new brands, including Martha Stewart, Route 66 and Jaclyn Smith.

Big Kmart’s strategy, according to the company, was designed to increase sales by increasing the frequency of a customer’s visits to the store. The store’s merchandise was changed to emphasize the types of items that customers needed most often, including home items, children’s apparel, and pantry and paper goods.

However, in 2002, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, citing disappointing holiday sales, dips in the company’s stock value and downgrades by several credit rating agencies. Following the bankruptcy, Kmart acquired Sears and formed the Sears Holding Corp. The company now also operates Lands’ End Clothing, which is based in Dodgeville, Wis.

The Fort Atkinson store survived a formidable wave of closings that shuttered 284 stores as part of that event.

Twenty-two-thousand employees, or 9 percent of the company’s workforce, lost jobs at that time, including those at Wisconsin stores in Beloit, Fond du Lac, Grafton, Hudson, Madison, Marshfield, Monona and Wau sau.

But perhaps the final decision in the local store’s fate came with the opening of the Jefferson Walmart Supercenter in 2008, just three miles to the north. The opening of that store followed six years of debate as many in the area opposed the retail giant’s move to the area.

Among other objections, many residents feared the competition from Walmart would drive other local retailers out of business. Though the successful retail chain building on its doorstep might have played a part, Kmart consistently has been closing stores for several years, including about 120 stores in 2012.

The company’s 2012 financial statement noted that its place in a highly competitive market and attributed the stores’ loss of revenue mainly to the country’s economic conditions.

The company statement announced plans to reduce inventory by $500 million and reduce fixed costs by $200 million over 2013, both of which can be achieved by the closing of stores.

Today, Fort Atkinson City Manager Evelyn Johnson said the Fort Atkinson Kmart’s closing leaves behind a legacy.

“It’s always sad to see any business leave Fort Atkinson, but we’re proud that they were a part of the city for as long as they were,” she said.

Although Hrobsky noted that closure was bad news for a struggling side of town, she raised the idea that the store’s departure is not entirely surprising in light of the neighborhood’s struggle over the past few years. In fact, she said it might even bring new happenings for the local business community.

“I do think it may provide some opportunities for us,” she said, although she didn’t provide spe cifics. “We’ve talked about some other things that might happen there, so perhaps we can turn this into an opportunity.”

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