Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

Realtor Milles Gregory, current manager of the Westgate Plaza Shopping Center was instrumental in securing the property and water and sewer to originally construct the shopping center in 1987.

For the first time since the shopping center opened, the second of the original tenants will be closing their doors on April 30. Ingles Supermarket vacated the shopping center last fall moving to a larger facility on Georgia Road, south of Franklin.

Kmart, which first opened in the Westgate Plaza Shopping center in 1987 as a 60,000 square foot retail center, announced last week that the store will be closing its doors in April. Kmart expanded once during its 31 years at Westgate Plaza, adding the garden center making the total space 96,000 square feet.

“We are disappointed to find out about Kmart closing their Franklin location,” said Gregory. “It’s hard to find the rationale behind the decision. We have one of the nicest shopping centers west of Asheville. But they are the ones calling the shots.”

More than 100 Kmart and Sears stores across the country will close this spring, including five low-performing Kmart stores in North Carolina. The Westgate Plaza Kmart location in Franklin will be closing in April.

“Any time you lose a major retailer such as Kmart it is of great concern. Not only the loss of jobs but also for the citizens who shop there it also means a loss in sales tax revenue,” said Macon County Commission Vice-Chair Ronnie Beale. “The hope is that space can be occupied soon.”

Kmart only leased the building located in the shopping center, so when they vacate the building, a new retailer will be able to move in.

“We are aggressively pursuing another retailer to fill that space and hope we will be able to do that quickly,” said Gregory. “We have already started talking to other businesses. Kmart plans to leave April 30, which is before their lease is up. But we hope to have someone to get in there as soon as we can.”

Mayor Bob Scott said that Kmart closing is a trend he is seeing for all retailers.

“I was hoping that our Kmart would be spared from closing,” said Franklin Mayor Bob Scott. “However, it seems that retail businesses such as Kmart appear to be in peril nationwide. I don’t know the reason, but I think much of it can be attributed to Internet shopping. Hopefully the managers of the shopping center will find a replacement. It seems that daily the news carries stories of retail businesses, which were once a household word, that are now closing. I remember when we had  a Roses, Sky City, Winn-Dixie and A&P.    All now gone. It is sad but seems to be a fact of America’s economy now. Unfortunately it appears that the bottom line, not service to people, is the determining factor of business today.”

The store closing comes months after a previously announced cost-cutting measure when Sears said it would be closing unprofitable stores nationwide.

In a statement, the department store chain said the local closures are part of an effort to “right size our store footprint in number and size” to better align the growth in online shopping with demand for physical stores.

The stores will be closing between early March and early April, with liquidation sales beginning around Jan. 12, Sears said. Workers were informed of the closures on Thursday, Sears added.

Eligible workers will get severance and will have the chance to apply for open positions at nearby stores, Sears said.

In total, the most recent slew of closings includes 64 Kmart stores and 39 Sears stores. The North Carolina Kmarts to close are in Franklin, Shelby, Sanford, Midway Park and Salisbury. No Sears stores in North Carolina are slated to close.

Sears acquired Kmart in 2003 and combined the two stores under Sears Holdings two years later.

More than 1,000 stores have been closed in the past few years, leaving only 1,104 stores remaining in operation across the country.

The closing of the Franklin Kmart means the next closest Kmart location will now be in Waynesville.

At the opposite end of the shopping center sits Ingles, which has been empty since Oct. 25 when Ingles Markets opened the new Super Ingles on the Georgia Road.

According to Gregory, that building likely won’t remain empty for long. Three weeks ago, Ingles Markets renewed their lease on the building for five years. As part of the lease agreement, Ingles is able to sublet the building, but must do so by April 1. While no official announcements have been made from Ingles, Gregory said that he has heard rumors and is confident that the building will be occupied by April 1.

Gregory said that the Ingles lease agreement states that Ingles isn’t allowed to utilize the building as storage or overflow of their existing building, but the lease will allow a sublet to another retail business. Ingles also owns and operates Sav-Mor Foods, which includes seven locations in North Carolina, including one in Sylva, and one each in South Carolina and Tennessee.

The North Carolina License Plate Office is one of the newer tenants to call Westgate Plaza home. The office moved from Depot Street to Westgate Plaza in October 2016. Other tenants in the shopping center include Fat Buddies Ribs and BBQ, Gondolas, Appalachian Dental, Goodwill, Macon Credit Union, Subway, Circuit World, Happy Family Laundry, Gregory Realty, Toccoa Natural Gas, and One Main Financial, Macon Tax, North Carolina License Plate Office, and Natural Nails.