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Thief River Falls looks for new retailer after J.C. Penney closes

THIEF RIVER FALLS--A J.C. Penney store that has been part of Thief River Falls retail for nearly a century closed this week, and economic leaders are trying to attract other businesses to fill the downtown space.

J.C. Penney in Thief River Falls closed its doors for good Monday. (FNS Photo)

THIEF RIVER FALLS-A J.C. Penney store that has been part of Thief River Falls retail for nearly a century closed this week, and economic leaders are trying to attract other businesses to fill the downtown space.

J.C. Penney let customers shop one final time Monday before closing the doors for good at 225 Main Ave. N. The announcement of the store's closure came in March as part of a list of 138 stores, including seven other outlets in Minnesota, that would close across the country.

"It's a blow to the city, that's for sure" said Gerry Dehaan, who owns the building J.C. Penney occupied. "Thief River Falls is not looking good."

Branches in the North Dakota cities of Jamestown, Dickinson and Wahpeton also closed Monday. Grand Forks' and Fargo's stores were not named in the list of closings.

There have been talks with two potential buyers for the building, said Christine Anderson, economic development director for Pennington County. She declined to name the potential tenants.


"Hopefully something will come out of that," she said.

She also has been in talks with Kohl's to bring a small branch to Thief River Falls, but they are not among the two potential tenants interested in the J.C. Penney's location, she said.

Dehaan confirmed there was interest in a purchase of the building, which has a basement and main floor totalling 20,250 square feet, but he didn't seem optimistic about the sale.

"As far as selling it, there were a couple of interested ones, but that's been a couple of months ago and they haven't gotten back to me," he said.


The retailer first opened its Thief River Falls branch in September 1920 downtown before moving to its latest location in 1962. Before closing, it employed 30 workers, corporate spokesman Joey Thomas said in an email to the Herald.

"They are very upset about it," Anderson said of the city, adding the retailer had a large economic impact on the area. "It has been a mainstay for the community for many, many years, and to lose something like that is very devastating."

Competition from online retailers and declining profits forced the conglomerate to close stores, the company said.


"Taking actions that directly impact our valued associates and loyal customers is difficult, but we'll go to great lengths to relocate esteemed leaders, while providing outplacement support services for those eligible associates who will be leaving the company," Thomas said, adding he didn't know if the Thief River Falls employees were transferred to other stores or were laid off.

The Thief River Falls Chamber of Commerce started a petition to keep J.C. Penney and attracted nearly 3,000 signers, Chamber Executive Director Ashley Nerhus said. Both she and Anderson were impressed with the support from residents, even though it didn't work.

"It made me more excited about the community's devotion to their local businesses," Anderson said. "That shows me what that type of business meant to the community."

What's next

There are other retailers in Thief River Falls, such as boutiques, Maurices, Wal-Mart and Kmart. However, there are few options for men's and children's attire, Nerhus said. Customers may have to shop online or drive to Grand Forks for more options.

"In talking to people, they would prefer to have a good business in town that can replace (J.C. Penney), something similar," she said. "We just need to keep looking."

Dehaan felt more people would drive to Grand Forks now that J.C. Penney has left, but Nerhus said she was confident another clothing retailer would replace the company, adding the idea that "our retail is dying" in Thief River Falls is "absolutely not true."

"We still have many stores that are continuing to open every year," she said. "We have other stores that offer really great products.


"It's just that, unfortunately, one store closed, but that doesn't mean that everything else is falling apart," she said. "I would say that Thief River Falls is actually growing right now, and I think we are in a good spot."

Thief River Falls is working toward a plan that would highlight steps to revitalize and improve its downtown. That plan should be made public in August, Nerhus said.

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