Some wonder if mall can survive loss of J.C. Penney, Belk

Betsy Safrit, whose farmland became the Salisbury Mall, fears the troubled shopping center will fold after JCPenney closes.
Betsy Safrit, whose farmland became the Salisbury Mall, fears the troubled shopping center will fold after JCPenney closes.

SALISBURY — JCPenney, one of America’s oldest and most iconic department stores, will close its Salisbury location Saturday, leaving many wondering if the Salisbury Mall can survive.

The store was mostly empty Wednesday, with vacant areas cordoned off and a few cash registers humming for customers who picked up last-minute bargains at steep discounts.

Local employees said they could not talk to the Post, but a manager in March said the store employed about 35 people at the time, most in part-time positions.

JCPenney was an original anchor at the Salisbury Mall. When Belk pulls out this fall and moves to Wallace Commons at exit 74 on Interstate 85, no original anchors will remain.

Big Lots has moved to exit 76 on the interstate, and the mall now stands mostly empty, although Badcock Furniture recently moved into the former Goody’s location.

Betsy Safrit sold her farmland in 1986 at the intersection of Jake Alexander Boulevard and Statesville Boulevard, which became the home of Salisbury Mall. It seemed like a good location at the time, she said, but in hindsight, the mall should have been constructed closer to the interstate.

Walking in the mall Wednesday for exercise, Safrit said she fears the landmark will shut down. She’s watched store after store close, most recently Regis Salon.

“It’s sad,” she said. “The whole mall is just going to close. There is nothing else to keep it open.”

Bon Jovi’s rock anthem “Living on a Prayer” played throughout the concourse, perhaps an appropriate theme song for the troubled shopping center.

Christy Gatewood and Justin Grier, both 21, stopped by JCPenney to see what they could find. After Saturday, they will have to drive to Concord to shop at their favorite department store.

“It’s a bummer, because Penney’s has better deals than Belk,” Grier said.

The pair recounted growing up in the Salisbury Mall, from family lunches after church to hanging out as teenagers on Friday nights.

“We don’t really have anything else on this side of town,” Gatewood said.

Fay Howell stopped by JCPenney for the second time in two days, this time bringing daughter Faith Howell. They lamented the store’s closure.

“It’s a place you could go buy Sunday clothes, nice outfits,” Fay Howell said.

She predicted the mall’s demise without Penney, Belk and Big Lots.

“There ain’t nothing here,” she said.

Radio Shack, Bath & Body Works, GNC, Books a Million and a few other stores remain open. The mall also includes K&W Cafeteria and Salisbury Mall Cinemas, where you can see a movie for two bucks.

Retail giant JCPenney has struggled financially since the failure of a new marketing strategy that eliminated coupons and sale events. Sales dropped $4.3 billion last year.

Controversial new CEO Ron Johnson, Apple’s retail guru, stepped down in April and was replaced by Mike Ullman, Penney’s former chief executive, who has launched an aggressive comeback campaign with good results in back-to-school sales.

According to research firm Experian Marketing Services, has been ranked as No. 2 since July 13 among the top online retail sites for back-to-school shoppers. Walmart is No. 1.

But the good news comes too late for the Salisbury store, whose fate was sealed in March.

“Each year, we evaluate our store portfolio to determine whether there’s a need to close or relocate underperforming stores,” spokeswoman Sarah Holland said at the time.

JCPenney is positioning itself for future growth, she said.

“While it’s never an easy decision to close a store, especially due to the impact on our valued team members and customers, we would not have moved forward with this difficult decision if we did not believe it was absolutely necessary,” Holland said.

Vanessa Martin and her mother, Sherry Lowery, worked at the Salisbury JCPenney store for years. Lowery worked in visual arts department and made all the signs for Penney when the mall first opened.

As a teen, Martin often appeared in fashion shows JCPenney would host in the mall. Martin hasn’t worked at the store in years but continued to shop there for her three children.

“Until their last days I will be shopping there,” she said. “I like the family-knit environment. It’s never been about high-dollar brands, and that keeps it affordable for families like mine.”

Mall owner Namdar Realty Group did not reply to an email asking for comment about JCPenney’s closure and the mall’s future.

“It’s more depressing than anything,” Faith Howell said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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