Ax throwing and log sawing contests vied for crowd approval outside but it was probably the flannel shirts or underwear inside that stole the show when Duluth Trading Co. staged its grand opening March 1.
Duluth took over the 24,500-square feet former home of Sports Authority at 8931 Old Seward Highway, which closed in 2016. After an investment of $800,000 in renovations performed by local contractors H. Watt &Scott Inc., it took about a month to set up the store and hire 50 individuals, said manager Erik Hansen.
The Wisconsin-based clothing company wanted a big Alaska entrance for its grand opening. One sure need when scouting out the store’s location was a high-visibility spot near a highway where motorists would frequently spot the brand name, Hansen said.
It didn’t hurt when the festivities included its standard live shows that involved throwing axes and chopping wood.
Inside, product lines spouted rhymes — “Crouch without the Ouch” pants and “Dry on the Fly” coats — had drawn hundreds of customers standing five deep by each cash register.
“It’s been non-stop busy since we opened,” Hansen said.
Duluth is opening just after some big names — Sports Authority, Sam’s Club and now, Sears — have exited the Anchorage market.
But other big name stores are moving in to hire nearly the same number of workers displaced by a sum total of the closings, said Anchorage Economic Development Corp. CEO Bill Popp.
What’s happened in Anchorage with the loss of big box stores involves corporate decisions based on a national level, Popp said.
“It was impacted by what was going on in Alaska and may have been sped up a process … but it was not only the Alaska recession,” he said.
He sees Dave &Buster’s — set to open March 19 — as a trendy entertainment chain and Duluth as “true retailers.” But each is very much customer experienced-base, he added.
“Duluth is fun, energetic, engaging. The same will be true with the Dave &Buster’s model. These will be two good contributors to the economy,” Popp predicts.
Between the two newcomers, about 350 jobs are getting filled, Popp said.
When Sam’s Club closed, just fewer than 300 people lost their retail jobs. Sears’ economic descent in Anchorage meant steadily shedding jobs until near the end it employed just more than 100, meaning a more gradual loss of jobs for the economy to absorb, he said.
“The job losses are replaced already,” Popp said.
The next employment opportunity comes in constructing and filling the 60,000-square-feet of space now occupied by Sears where a grocery store will go in, Popp said, which will mean a few hundred jobs. Guitar World will be employing a “couple dozen” people as well, Popp said.
Anchorage is likely to see additional national attention from companies that don’t yet have a presence here.
“That is traditional in a business cycle, when a town is in a weakened economy,” Popp said. “Construction costs are down. Contractors are willing to sharpen pencils more sharply in terms of bids. Rent is cheaper. So a smart business operator who has the cash and financial ability to do so will take advantage of the bottom side of the cycle.”
In releasing the AEDC 2018 economic forecast this January, Popp predicted the recession is “moderating quite a bit and potentially will end later this year, barring unforeseen circumstances.”
The new mall businesses will help, he said.
“They will help to moderate the losses and end the recession. Returning to growth, however, that’s different, That has to come from state fiscal policy to return to more robust growth,” Popp said. “But on a local level, retail wise, these are positive signs for retail and the service economy.”
The recent bankruptcy declaration by the group owning Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse, the Williwaw, Flattop Pizza and Bootleggers 8 Star Saloon is “concerning” in what it may forebode about the Anchorage service economy, Popp said.
“There are signs of weakness in employment and we are hearing anecdotally they are struggling. I’m worried we will see a couple of those closing,” Popp said. “The recent announcement of bankruptcy by Humpy’s — that’s some of the concerns we have in that sector.”
On the other hand, Popp added, it’s normal in a down economy for consumers to reduce dining out, even for businesses to tone back the lunch and catering dates. That trend negatively impacted local restaurants’ profits, he said.
A line of 25 or so waited in single-digit temperatures for the doors to open at Duluth.
“One man said he’s a big fan of our catalogue and took the day off work so he could be here for the opening,” Hansen, the manager, said.
Alaska was a good match for Duluth’s product lines, Hansen said.
“Three years ago they came here for a trades panel discussion and saw we would definitely have a customer base here,” he said.
The trades panel is a made up of industry representatives from construction, commercial fishing and extreme outdoor adventuring like dog mushing. Duluth consults these representatives to gain feedback that then goes into how it manufactures outdoor gear after trials. Its Alaska Hard Gear line, which takes up a 1,600-square foot chunk of store space, was manufactured with the help of such feedback.
The lines are manufactured by companies in and outside the USA, Hansen said.
“We gained product feedback to see what’s needed: Is it the right length? Is it too heavy? If a coat is too heavy, they won’t wear it,” Hansen said.
Wall illustrations of people wearing the apparel aren’t models but actual Alaskans who wore the clothing and evaluated its durability in a hardcore industry workout. Commercial fishermen from Sitka, construction workers and a dog mushing woman dominate the wall space.
In 1998, the company was founded by brothers Bob and Dave Fierek in Belleville, Wis., after they designed a tool organizer they called the Bucket Boss. Still a best-seller, the tools can be tossed unsorted in a bucket.
“Then you can organize them easier with the kit like this around the bucket,” Hansen said as he demonstrated.
Since 2001, Duluth Trading Co., has been owned by investor Steve Schlect, now its CEO. The Anchorage location marks its 32nd store.
Dave &Buster’s opening nears
Duluth’s opening is to be followed by another major anchor for South Anchorage at the Dimond Center in Dave &Busters Sports Bar, a popular bar-restaurant chain from Texas that also prides itself on doing things large.
Dave &Buster’s opens March 19, said Jared Hilliard, manager. They’ve hired about 300 service workers, though interviews conducted and wrapped up March 5.
Some 1,400 people applied over the past few weeks, according to the company. The restaurant’s entry to Alaska required more than raising the roof at the Dimond Center.
It also required legislation that was signed by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016 declaring the tokens or tickets that can be won in gaming are not classified as gambling.
The 44,000-square foot business is to be located on the second floor of the Dimond Center, down the hall from the Regal Cinema movie theaters.
The location will have a sports bar, dining, arcade gaming area and private dining areas for parties and events, said Dimond Center Marketing Director Brenda Steil.
The $21 million investment was split by the Dimond Center owners the Ashlock family ($11 million) and Dave and Buster’s ($10 million), she said. The construction contracts were given to local companies.
Between construction and Dave &Buster’s hires there were nearly 600 jobs created by this Dimond Center expansion, Steil said. The redesign of space involved major changes to the mall’s northern edifice and lifting the roof, which was built in the original mall design of 1977.
Local companies WB Architecture, MCN Construction Inc. general contractors, BBFM Engineers, Allied Steel Construction Inc., RSA Engineering and Steel Erectors were all involved, with only one outside contractor, Rooflifters of Miami, Fla.
Sears Mall transition
Sears at its namesake the Mall at Sears is closing down, with plans for a new Safeway store to take up a majority of the space. Albertson’s, which purchased the Alaska Safeway chain of grocery stores in 2014, removed a main mall anchor when it closed down its Safeway store at the western end in 2015, said Linda Boggs, the mall’s marketing and leasing specialist.
“I guess they missed it. Now they want to put it back in, but at the opposite end,” Boggs said.
The mall, owned by national group Seritage Growth Properties, is giving out few details on its plans for releasing the space to new retailers.
A press release the company put out stated only that Sears was closing in April and that the lease of 145,680 square feet in the store area and 17,390 square feet in the auto center for were each up for lease, all with the ability to subdivide.
The western side of the mall — where the Carrs store formerly leased space — is currently in need of a company to lease it, Boggs said.
A new name also is on the way to replace “The Mall at Sears,” Anchorage’s second oldest mall, built in January, 1968. (Montgomery Wards in the Northern Lights Center was first, built in the early 1960s.)
“Just in time for its 50th anniversary, we will be revealing the new name,” Boggs said. “It will be something simple.”
The public will hear about the new name in a “few weeks” she said, after the decision and the new signs are made. They also are waiting for Sears to close its doors sometime in April.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]