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Ward's closing will cost jobs and anchor store

Thousands of square feet will be left vacant at a time when Gulf View Square Mall is wrapping up a $9-million renovation.

Word that 120 people would lose their jobs and that Pasco's only mall would lose one of its original anchors blared from a bank of big-screen TV sets in Montgomery Ward's electronics department at Gulf View Square Mall Thursday morning.

Chicago-based Montgomery Ward & Co.'s top executives said Thursday afternoon that they would close its 250 stores and file for bankruptcy, ending a 128-year-old retail empire. But the company officially delivered the word long after the media had reported it. The stores will close over the next several months, the company said.

"I'm just shocked," said Veronica Howell, a Port Richey resident who started working at the store the day it opened in 1980. "There was always talk going around (about a closing), but I never believed it. I thought that every other retailer was slowing down, too."

Montgomery Ward struggled for years before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1997. GE Capital, Ward's chief creditor, bought the chain last year and began renovating stores, renaming them "Wards" and launching a new marketing campaign. The store in Gulf View Square was due for a $2-million renovation early next year.

Architectural renderings and orange signs announcing "Wards Construction Site" plastered the walls of the store's second-floor business office, where bewildered employees lined up to pick up one of their last paychecks. Many said that their paychecks had been late in previous weeks _ and many feared that the store would be padlocked shut on Friday.

At Gulf View Square, Wards' closing will leave thousands of square feet vacant at a time when the mall is wrapping up a $9-million renovation and ushering in name-brand retailers such as Gap and Finish Line.

Mall officials declined to comment on the closing. Merchants in nearby stores worried that it would sap the business they got from walk-by traffic.

"It's terrible," said C.J. Parks, owner of Parks Dollar Store, which operates near the mall entrance to the Montgomery Ward store. "I don't know what's going to happen. People are always coming out of that store and in here."

Shoppers who were streaming into Montgomery Ward on Thursday to make returns or to take advantage of after-Christmas bargains were also surprised.

"I'm really going to miss it," said Margie Vislocky of Spring Hill. "It's like losing an old institution. Is JCPenney not far behind?"

The same question has been on the minds of those who closely watch the retail industry.

A disappointing Christmas selling season, weakened by high fuel prices and shaky consumer confidence and stock prices, pushed Montgomery Ward to close, its chief executive said Thursday. But big-box discount department stores such as Wal-Mart and Target have eclipsed JCPenney, Montgomery Ward and other midline department stores in recent years by offering better values and nicer shopping environments.

They've found it hard to impress shoppers such as New Port Richey resident Colleen Sheriden.

"If you want better quality, you can go to Dillard's or Burdines," said Sheriden, as she perused the plaid flannel shirts selling at 50 percent off at Montgomery Ward. "And if you want cheaper prices, you can go to Kmart and Wal-Mart and get the same stuff."

_ Jennifer Goldblatt covers business in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6229 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6229. Her e-mail address is goldblattsptimes.com.

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