A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
New life for area's old Winn-Dixies
After the chain created a historic glut of retail space, other retailers spotted a chance to grow
More than a year after "The Beef People" trimmed fat by leaving the Carolinas, almost two-thirds of the former Winn-Dixie stores in the Charlotte region are occupied by other retail companies.
From Hobby Lobby in Hickory to Harris Teeter in Huntersville, new names have filled 19 of the 31 stores that closed last summer in Mecklenburg and nearby counties. The stores were among 127 in the Carolinas that the Florida-based Winn-Dixie closed as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
In the Charlotte area, Winn-Dixie's departure left more than 1.3 million square feet of retail space suddenly available -- an unprecedented glut, one real estate analyst said.
"It's really unheard of," said Frank Warren of Warren & Associates in Charlotte.
As of this week, 12 former Winn-Dixies -- about 490,000 square feet -- remained empty, while a few had tenants in only half of the building.
That's not surprising, Warren said. Retail spaces that are older, smaller and in lower-income areas will struggle to find new tenants, he said.
But those are in the minority, as most former Winn-Dixies paintings found new life in the months after the pullout, either as another grocery store or different kind of retailer.
Some chains grabbed spaces quickly. Harris Teeter took over two stores in the Charlotte suburbs a month after Winn-Dixie's decision. Bi-Lo has been an even bigger player, opening six stores in three counties.
In northwest Charlotte, shopper Adrienne Harris said Winn-Dixie had barely left when Bi-Lo moved into the store off Little Rock Road.
"We didn't even get a chance to miss it," she said Thursday.
Although Bi-Lo has nicer cashiers, she added, "I still call it Winn-Dixie."
Small grocers also staked claims, from Fresh Air Galaxy and Honey's IGA in Catawba County to Atlantic Farmers Market and Compare Foods in Mecklenburg.
But with supermarkets occupying less than half of the old Winn-Dixies paintings, some property owners pursued other options in filling spaces that range from 30,000 to 60,000 square feet.
In Belmont, a Fred's discount store opened in April in half of a former Winn-Dixie, and an Aldi discount grocery store will open this fall in the other half.
The two stores will fill the physical void and bring people to that shopping center, said Ted Hall, director of the Belmont Chamber of Commerce.
But for people such as Hall who grew up with Winn-Dixies paintings across the region, it was hard to see the supermarket chain leave.
"It marks the end of an era," Hall said. "It definitely had an emotional impact and psychological impact as well as an economic impact."
Why have some Winn-Dixies paintings been snapped up while others remain dark? Look at your local market, Warren said.In fast-growing areas with above-average household incomes, empty stores are valuable real estate, he said. That's why Harris Teeter went after the brick building on Providence Road in western Union County, Warren said, where elected leaders and homeowners often scrutinize new construction.
"Trying to get a commercial parcel rezoned in Weddington or Marvin is extremely difficult," he said.
Harris Teeter already had nine stores in a seven-mile radius around Weddington. But while retailers such as Nordstrom and Cabela's often draw shoppers from more than an hour away, supermarkets typically serve residents within a few miles, said Patrice Duker, spokeswoman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
Convenience and closeness are even more valued in today's need-it-now climate, she added.
"We're not lazy consumers," Duker said. "We're just so time-compressed now."
Some Winn-Dixies, though, weren't in thriving areas, which meant property owners and managers had to be creative in attracting new tenants, Warren said.
In Dallas, a mattress store occupies half of an old Winn-Dixie. Half of a store on Pineville-Matthews Road in Charlotte became a Recreation Warehouse.
Belmont's Winn-Dixie was vacant for almost six months before the Fred's store was announced. The lack of activity in that space hurt at least one nearby store.
"We didn't get all that traffic," said Robin Wood, an associate manager at Dollar Tree. "Winn-Dixie was our big pull."
But customer numbers have improved since Fred's opened, Wood said, and Aldi should help even more.
Other locations haven't been as lucky, with several former Winn-Dixie stores still awaiting new tenants.
A former store in Lincolnton is a half-mile from a Harris Teeter, while one in southeastern Gastonia is less than a mile from a Bi-Lo and a Food Lion. That site off South New Hope Road has no other stores, and the parking lot was empty Tuesday except for a Goodwill collection trailer in the rear and an amorous young couple standing near the road.
In Rock Hill, three of the city's four Winn-Dixies remain vacant, including one on Celanese Road that Rob Youngblood, president of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce, drives by every day.
One other store in that center has closed in the past year, Youngblood said, and others aren't doing as well as when Winn-Dixie was open. The longer that large space stays dark, he added, the harder it may be for those smaller stores to survive on their own.
"The time adds up," he said.
-- Emily S. Achenbaum, Jen Aronoff, Holly Baltz, Kerry Bean, Adam Bell, Nichole Monroe Bell, Dan Huntley and Kathryn Thier contributed.
Jefferson George: 704-868-7742
Winn-Dixie, based in Jacksonville, Fla., expects to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization by late October. Since withdrawing from the Carolinas, the company has limited its store operations to core markets in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida.
During its quarter ending April 5, Winn-Dixie lost $30 million compared to a loss of $13.4 million during the same period in 2005, according to the company's most recent quarterly report, filed in May. Its same store sales -- an important industry indicator of stores open more than a year -- increased 6.7 percent compared to the year-earlier period. The company said in June that its restructuring has led to an annual cost reduction of $100 million. -- Nichole Monroe Bell
Winn-Dixie by County
When it pulled out of the Carolinas last year, Winn-Dixie left behind more than 30 stores in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.
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