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Region retailers continued to struggle in 2019 with many prominent closures like the Sears at the Southlake Mall in Hobart, the last Kmart in Northwest Indiana in Valparaiso, and a few dining institutions where Region residents ate for decades.

But the store closings did not come as fast and furious as in recent years, when Northwest Indiana lost HHGregg, MC Sports, Sports Authority, Gander Mountain and many other retailers for good.

"Following the 'retail apocalypse' that began in 2010, there are signs that the retail industry in Northwest Indiana has generally stabilized," Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said. "Employment in broadly defined retail trade, as well as employment in general merchandise stores specifically, remains unchanged from one year ago in Northwest Indiana. The retail industry is closely tied to consumer confidence which continues to be strong. However, should we enter a recession that leads to a collapse of consumer confidence, we may be looking at further retail closings and bankruptcies."

Losses

As e-commerce sites like Amazon, Zappos and Overstock continued to gain market share, retailers continued to close in Northwest Indiana. The Big Kmart at Ridge Road and Cline Avenue shuttered in early January after two decades, when its parent company Sears went bankrupt after failing to turn a profit since 2010, losing $11 billion over eight years. An estimated 113 workers lost their jobs, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

Sears closed at the Marquette Place shopping mall, effectively dooming it to demolition after shuttering the last anchor store, and the Southlake Mall location in November. Sears had been an anchor at the super-regional mall at U.S. 30 and Mississippi Street in Hobart since 1974, selling appliances, clothes, tools and more to generations of Region residents.

"There was solid growth with new construction starts of retail buildings around Northwest Indiana. However, the big box stores are still shuttering around our area in a similar fashion to the national trend," said Aaron McDermott, president and co-founder of Latitude Commercial in Schererville. "Sears and Carson’s are now closed at Southlake Mall, Lowe’s in Portage, Kmart in Valpo and Griffith, and owners are scrambling for new tenants/ideas for those spaces."

Lighthouse Place Premium Outlet Mall in Michigan City also suffered its share of closures, including Gymboree. The chain Avenue shuttered clothing stores in Highland and Merrillville. Quest Eatery and Spirits closed after 40 years in Schererville, Barlett's Gourmet Grill and Tavern shut down in Beverly Shores, and the beloved Miller Bakery Cafe called it quits after years of road construction in Gary's lakefront Miller neighborhood. Steak 'n Shake "temporarily" shuttered restaurants in Portage and Michigan City as the Indianapolis-based company went through financial difficulties, but hasn't reopened them.

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Shopko closed in Lowell and DeMotte. Dressbarn went bankrupt, closing in Schererville and Valparaiso. The decades-old Remarkable Book Shop at 7227 Taft St., which carried many used books on its crammed shelves and had quirks like a sign in the window that said "under very old management," penned its last chapter after its owner decided to retire. BESS Art Exposure hung it up after about a year in Merrillville, and the landmark Louise's Hallmark Store went out of business after 30 years.

Businesses like Avenue and China King closed at the Ultra Plaza outdoor mall in Highland, which fell into foreclosure after longtime anchor Ultra Foods shuttered in 2017. That might become a more common scenario as vacancies mount across the Region and nation, McDermott said.

"With a lot of debt coming due within the next couple years you will see larger malls going into foreclosure because of these large vacancies that also affect the smaller tenants that fed off that foot traffic. A lot of the larger malls have percentage rent in addition to the base rent retailers pay," he said. "Those total rent numbers are what malls are purchased and refinanced using. Since most of these total projections are down so significantly since the last purchase or refinance, they are not going to be able to restructure their debt when it becomes due. You will see a lot of that starting to happen around the country and potentially around Northwest Indiana. The good news for the customer is that typically doesn’t have any large repercussions on what they might see or expect when shopping. The only real difference is retailer’s rent checks might be made payable to more bankruptcy receivers then mall owners next year."

Gains

Despite the continued wave of closures, the Region also had its share of wins on the retail front, including a new Ollie's Bargain Outlet in Merrillville, Castle Subaru's takeover of Harbor Buick GMC in Portage, and developers' plans to bring an entertainment center with an upscale restaurant, arcade and boutique bowling alley to the Boulevard Square Mall in Schererville. Save-A-Lot Supermarket opened in South Haven, taking over the 18,500-square-foot Al's Supermarket at 390 U.S. 6 that had previously been home to Costas Foods and Wonderland Discount Store.

Ross's Dress for Less and dd's Discounts took over the long-vacant space at the long-abandoned Kmart on Indianapolis Boulevard in Hammond. Gayety's came back to downtown Lansing, Crown Point's Old Town Antique Mall moved closer to Interstate 65 after being forced from the courthouse square, and H&M opened its second Northwest Indiana location in Lighthouse Place. Port of Peri Peri, Nothing Bundt Cake and Rise'n Roll Bakery all took over vacant space in shopping malls in Schererville.

Developers continued to plan big projects like Maple Leaf Crossing at Calumet Avenue and 45th Street in Munster that will feature many restaurants and retail shops, including in cutting-edge shipping container architecture. Hammond tore down its vacant three-story Carson's at the former Woodmar Mall in the hope of bringing in new restaurants and hotels by its brand-new SportsPlex complex.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.