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Bottom Line: West Lebanon Kmart the one blue light still shining in northern New England

  • John Lippman. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 11/23/2019 10:10:47 PM
Modified: 11/26/2019 7:29:47 PM

The Kmart store in West Lebanon might not seem special, but it has a singular status.

With the recent announcement about stores slated for closing, the Kmart on Route 12A in West Lebanon will soon be the sole remaining Kmart in New Hampshire, Vermont or Maine.

Kmart was once as familiar in New England as a lobster roll.

“It’s our location and customers,” store manager Carolyn Adams told me the other day when I stopped in to find out what it is about the Kmart that keeps it going after so many have closed.

At its peak in the 1990s, Kmart boasted thousands of stores across the country.

Earlier this month Transformco, the company that was formed to acquire Sears and Kmart assets out of bankruptcy, said that following the latest closings there would be a total of 182 Sears and Kmart stores. (It didn’t specify how many of the 182 are Kmarts.)

The Sears store in Upper Valley Plaza closed in 2017.

Adams said the West Lebanon’s store location near the Interstate 89-Interstate 91 junction captures travelers from Canada, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts, and that helps ensure a flow of customers that other locations don’t have.

“And it’s New Hampshire,” she noted, “so there’s no sales tax.”

Kmart has suffered through more than one bankruptcy — most recently under former owner Sears Holdings — and the nosedive of traditional retail due to online shopping. The brand has adhered to its formula as a discount box-store-of-all-things selling apparel, home furnishings, appliances, sports equipment and toys while the trend for many chain retailers like TJ Maxx and Target has been to focus on a narrower, slightly costlier product selection.

The West Lebanon store survived flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, which required $2.5 million in repairs. Kmart’s in-store pharmacy closed almost exactly two years ago in 2017 and the Little Caesars pizza counter in the store closed in 2018.

Some of the West Lebanon Kmart’s 38 full- and part-time employees have worked at the store for more than 30 years, noted Mary Williams, who has worked at the store for “only” 14 years.

“People like us and trust us,” said Williams, a Plainfield resident. “They like what’s always been.”

Adams, who joined the West Lebanon store this past spring when she transferred from another location in upstate New York, said she didn’t have any inside information on how this Kmart has avoided the ax.

“We don’t know how (management) makes the decisions” about which stores to close, she said. “They don’t tell us.”

But, she said, a “full semi every week” still pulls up to the loading dock at the West Lebanon store with supplies to restock — two semis last week in advance of the holiday shopping season.

How long the West Lebanon store can remain open, however, is anyone’s guess, given the downward trends in retail outlets and particular corporate issues with the parent company.

During my visit I noticed that many of the shelves appeared thin on merchandise and there were more employees on the floor than customers. Only one person was needed to man the checkout lanes.

“It used to be really bustling but seems sad now,” said Debra Jillette, who worked “in nearly every department of the store” from 2012 to 2015, including the Little Caesars counter.

Jillette, now residing in Gorham, N.H., said she enjoyed working at Kmart because of her co-workers but also wonders why the shelves do not appear to be as stocked as they did during her time there.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that will be the next one to go in the next round of closings,” said Jillette, who also worked at the former Lebanon Village Market and now works at Grant’s Shop’n Save about 15 miles south of Mount Washington.

A spokesman for Transformco declined to comment.

It takes a onetimerocket scientist tomanage Mount Sunapee

Tracy Bartels worked as a senior level engineer on — among other things — missile guidance systems before “packing up and making a lifestyle change” midcareer to become a children’s ski instructor at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado.

Now she’s the new general manager at Vail Resort’s Mount Sunapee ski mountain.

Bartels, 54, took over at Mount Sunapee on Nov. 4 from Bruce Schmidt, the former Okemo Mountain Resort GM who was brought in to run Mount Sunapee. The Broomfield, Colo., resort giant Vail purchased the operating rights for the state-owned property in Newbury, N.H., in addition to buying Okemo and Colorado resort Crested Butte, from the Mueller family for $82 million last year.

Schmidt is back at Okemo as vice president and GM with additional oversight of Mount Sunapee and Crotched Mountain, which Vail purchased this summer.

An early blast of cold air enabled Mount Sunapee to switch on the snow-making guns the night of Nov. 12 to prepare for a scheduled opening on Wednesday, Nov. 26, its earliest opening date in years, reported Bartels.

She said she expects three of the mountain’s 66 ski runs to be ready opening day, including Blastoff from “top to bottom” and the middle carpet lift in the Beginner Quad and Flyway trail at the bottom of the mountain between the Spruce and Sunapee lodges.

New changes this season include consolidating all 12-and-under rentals at Sunapee Lodge in order to be near the Learning Center and, on the dining front, the resort chef’s own sauerkraut topping on hot dogs served at Summit Lodge. For kids, there’s also a new “s’mores plate” introduced at Goosefeathers Pub.

Bartels said Mount Sunapee (summit elevation 2,743 feet) isn’t a come-down after 19 years at Breckenridge (summit elevation 12,998 feet) and even has amenities the Rockies didn’t offer. She and her husband of 31 years “are renting in Sunapee right on the lake. It’s absolutely fabulous,” she said.

The Upper Valley shuffle

Here’s an interesting case study of how a decision by one Upper Valley business leads to big decisions by two other completely unrelated Upper Valley businesses.

Last year the Hanover Co-op moved its business and administrative staff from 2 Buck Road in Hanover into one of the buildings at the Gilman Office Center in White River Junction.

Vacating the Buck Road offices opened an opportunity for Computac, the transportation logistics and point-of-sale software development company based at 162 N. Main St. in Lebanon, to buy the Co-op’s former building in Hanover from Granite Investments and move there.

Computac owner John Hochreiter said they didn’t need all 10,000 square feet for his 20-person company in West Lebanon and the Hanover building has about half the space.

Now Lebanon heating fuel distributor Simple Energy has purchased Computac’s old building at 112 N. Main St. and will be moving four-tenths of a mile up North Main Street for its new offices.

“We are literally bursting at the seams in our existing building, and customer parking has become a real issue that we had to address sooner rather than later,” said Simple Energy co-owner Kinson Craft. “The new building is almost double the size of our existing building, and we have 60-plus parking spaces which will make life a lot easier for our customers.”

Craft expects the interior fit-up for 162 N. Main St. will be completed within a few months, at which time he and his partner Rod Stenger and Simple Energy’s staff will move there.

As for 112 N. Main St., Craft said they plan to keep the property and “find one tenant to utilize the entire space​.”

Correction

Because of outdated information on the Kmart website, an earlier version of this column overstated the number of stores remaining in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. 




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