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CLOSING OF ROCHESTER SIBLEY'S STORE MIRRORS SAGA IN DOWNTOWN BUFFALO

A 60 percent off clearance sale usually makes shoppers very happy.

But the clearance sale going on at Sibley's department store in downtown Rochester isn't so pleasant for shoppers and those affiliated with downtown retail.

The sale signals the end for this 122-year-old department store, flagship for the 11 other stores in upstate chain. As soon as the goods are sold -- most likely this week -- the store will close for good, a Sibley's spokeswoman said.

Direct parallels can be seen between the Rochester closing and the shutdown of Sibley's store in downtown Buffalo in the early 1980s. Rochester already is beginning a redevelopment effort just like the one that has seen a refurbishing and new tenants for the Buffalo structure.

The owners of Sibley's announced in January that the downtown store would close in early February when the chain is merged with a 14-store Pittsburgh-based subsidiary, Kaufmann's. By April all the remaining Sibley stores -- five in Rochester, four in Buffalo and two in Syracuse -- will be called Kaufmann's.

The closing announcement surprised some Rochester government officials, neighboring retailers and shoppers. Others said they had been expecting it.

Most observers said they hope another retailer, preferably as fine as Sibley's once was, will fill at least the ground floor of the 1 million-square-foot building. Another retailer would keep shoppers coming downtown and minimize the short-term loss of traffic that has been generated by Sibley's.

"In the short term the closing will be devastating," said Larry Eastlack, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Development Corp., an association representing the major businesses in the central business district. But it could provide long-term opportunities for retail growth, he said.

Rochester Mayor Thomas P. Ryan Jr. this week announced that he will ask the City Council to approve a $30,000 agreement to hire Lane, Frenchman and Associates to conduct a study of redevelopment alternatives for the Sibley block.

The cost of the study will be split between the city and Wilmorite Corp., owners of the property. The company considers retail, residential, office, day care and theaters to be viable options for the property.

Along with studying possible uses, the consulting team will measure the impact of reuse alternatives on future development in the area. The study should be completed in 90 days.

Many shoppers interviewed this week had been shopping at the store for years, sometimes decades. They called it a downtown landmark, an institution. They milled through the ground floor of the store at Main and Franklin streets picking through what's left of the merchandise. All the goods remaining in the once-grand six-story department store could be found on the first floor. Some shelves, counters and display cases were heaped with merchandise; others were empty.

After the closing "there will be nothing for people to come downtown for," said Douglas Williams of Rochester. "There's going to be a lot of revenues lost and a lot of jobs lost because of it."

"I'm going to miss Sibley's terribly. I was born six miles from here. I've been shopping here for 60 years," said an elderly woman who declined to give her name. "I feel very bad that they're breaking up downtowns and building up (suburban malls). Sixty percent of those stores don't measure up to what we had here 40 years ago," she said.

Josephine Cordaro of Brighton worked at Sibley's for 23 years. Although she retired six years ago, she is worried about the fate of some of its middle-aged employees. "I don't know where you're going to be placed when you're 45 or 50," she said.

Sibley's first opened on Main Street in Rochester in 1886. Sibley's expanded into the Buffalo area in 1981 when it was combined with its sister Wm. Hengerer Co. chain by their parent, Associated Dry Goods Corp. The May Co. bought Associated Dry Goods in 1986.

Executives at Kaufmann's were unavailable for comment on the future of the Western New York stores or on the impact of the closing on downtown Rochester.

There are several logical suggestions for future use of the Rochester store. Some believe it could be transformed into a downtown branch of Monroe Community College, or that another anchor store could be opened there. Others would like to see a mixed-use office and residential building.

But most said the store should be replaced by upscale retail at ground level or an atrium-style mall with upscale stores. A cinema also would draw browsers and shoppers into the area, observers said.

Neighboring retailers and some government officials said the final days of the store were filled with ambiguities. Many were highly critical of the national chain and its decision to close Sibley's. Some said that, judging from the decrease in the quality of the merchandise being sold, the May Co. planned to close the store long before it actually was announced.

Additionally, they said company executives promised the store would not close when told city officials were planning to spend millions on downtown improvements, including a $511,000 sky walk on Main Street linking McCurdy's, a nearby department store, with Sibley's.

While downtown was being renovated with a $27 million project about two years ago and surveys were showing that the area's 45,000 11 a.m.-to-2 p.m. shoppers would patronize stores with high-quality merchandise, Sibley's cut back on quality and cut down space devoted to retail. Additionally, the May Co. had established a track record, closing downtown Sibley stores in Buffalo and Syracuse.

May Co. spokesman James Abrams denied the closing was planned two years in advance and noted that May shared the expense of the skywalk by contributing about $200,000 for it. The company also will spend $100 million on the remaining Sibley's stores be tween 1989 and 1993, he said. Bonnie K. Brauer, vice president and marketing director at Scranton's, a stationery store directly across the street from Sibley's, said customers did not support Sibley's or downtown retail in general, so closing the store probably was inevitable.

"If you really polled the people and asked how often they come downtown, you'll find they didn't shop at the store," Ms. Brauer said. "Right now our customers are people who work downtown. They take it (the closing) very personally but they didn't support it."

She said the negative perception shoppers have of downtown Rochester must improve, along with the number of retail options available to them or they will never support the area as they do the suburban malls.

But when the announcement was made, it came as a surprise to city officials, retailers and employees, said Jessie M. Lazeroff, vice president of Village Green bookstore.

About 630 employees affected by the closing have been absorbed by other stores in the Kaufmann chain or have been laid off, sources said.

Employees had no prior knowledge of layoffs but did sense that a merger was in the wings, said Allan Rubin, a former Sibley's employee who now is a manager at Scrantom's.

"They didn't know if they would be a part of G. Fox (a May Co. subsidiary based in Hartford, Conn.) or Kaufmann's," he said.

"The impact is definitely going to affect downtown because Sibley's brought a lot of traffic in our particular corridor," Rubin said. "It's going to adversely affect the small retailers," he said.

Suressa H. Forbes, Rochester commissioner of economic development, said the closing should be regarded as an opportunity to improve the selections available to area shoppers.

"Clearly it's a disappointment to us but it's also an opportunity" to replace the bargain-basement type merchandise that Sibley's was selling over the past two years with solid-quality items.

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