Barring an eleventh-hour change of heart, 94 employees at the Sears store at Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles will lose their jobs in two months. But the mall management and city officials hope to coax the retail giant to stay.
And the city and mall owners see hope in new business coming to Charlestowne, including an ice arena.
Sears spokeswoman Kim Freely said Wednesday the store will close March 20. The employees can apply for other openings in the company, but none are guaranteed jobs.
Freely refused comment on the reasons behind Sears' departure other than saying the company couldn't reach satisfactory terms on a lease renewal with the mall's ownership.
That statement came as a shock to Kathy Kekatos, general manager of the mall. She said the mall's new ownership has met with Sears officials several times about the lease, and everyone at the mall was under the impression negotiations were continuing.
"It's very frustrating," Kekatos said. "We just found out about it yesterday. We've still been reaching out to Sears even as of today. It's all a mystery."
Kekatos said she learned about Sears' decision from St. Charles city officials after Sears inquired about permits for a liquidation sale.
Chris Aiston, the city's economic development director, contacted Sears about the permits to get to the bottom of why they were needed. Aiston said the city was aware sales were down at Sears, as they are in most retail businesses in the city. Sears indicated the reason for leaving is not about sales since the location still turns a profit.
"They said their reason for closing is the inability to come to a satisfactory lease agreement," Aiston said. "I have not read the lease. We are not a party to the contract."
Aiston said the disappointment from the city's perspective is that the mall ownership never said it was having problems in negotiations with Sears. Had the city known, it might have come up with a deal-sweetener, such as a partial rebate on sales taxes Sears pays to the city.
"But we spoke to ownership again just today and they said they had no idea Sears was leaving," Aiston said.
There might be reasons to be optimistic about the mall. Anchor stores Kohl's and Von Maur both own the property they operate, making them less likely to leave. Aiston said the mall also disclosed it's in negotiations to bring two or three new businesses to the mall, including a restaurant.
In addition, the mall may soon have a new headline attraction. Aiston and Kekatos said the city is reviewing plans the mall owners submitted to build an 18,000-square-foot ice arena at the mall to revive foot traffic.
"What I really want the public to know is our new ownership is fabulous," Kekatos said. "You have to remember it's only been going on seven months since they've purchased the mall. We're updating the interior and the exterior of the mall. The community, the people in it, they just don't understand that it takes time to do all this."