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Locally owned Jenss Department Store Co. announced Thursday that continuing sales declines will force it to close its Summit Park Mall store at the end May.

Jenss Chairman Lawrence Dautch said his Amherst-based company's efforts to increase customer traffic to the 70,000-square-foot mall anchor store were overshadowed by what he termed "Summit Park's difficulties."

The 100-store Niagara County mall, which has a vacancy rate approaching 25 percent, earlier this week won a $3 million property assessment reduction from the Town of Wheatfield based on its operating difficulties.

"Our store was always fully staffed, well-stocked, well-promoted and advertised," Dautch said. "But despite all that, we've witnessed a steady, uninterrupted drop in sales that dates back to the early 1990s."

The revenue losses had gotten to the point where the retailer had to put the continuing health of the company ahead of a desire to make the Summit Park Mall store work.

"It's always a tough decision to close a store, but for me it's the human side of the decision that's the worst. This closing will affect 85 Jenss employees," Dautch said.

Joseph Wahl, manager of Summit Park Mall, released a statement saying the mall management regrets the loss of Jenss.

"Jenss has always been an excellent tenant and an important part of the Niagara Falls retail community. The mall is currently actively seeking a new merchant for the Jenss location," Wahl said in his written statement.

This marks the third time in three years that Jenss closed an underperforming store.

In August, the company shuttered its 60,000-square-foot Eastern Hills Mall store,
while in late 1995, it closed its five-story, landmark store at 1708 Main St. in Niagara Falls.

The Jenss chief said the decisions to close the underperforming properties were necessary to maintain the overall good health of the retail business. Sales at the company's flagship store in Boulevard Mall have seen steady increases, according to Dautch, and the company has experienced success with its growing collection of specialty boutiques, including its three-store partnership with Reeds Jewelers.

"What's left of Jenss is extremely strong. This decision in no way means Jenss is in trouble," he said. "We couldn't afford to have weaker units drain the health and expanding aspects of our business."

Dautch noted that the company has no bank or loan debt, despite its recent boutique-based expansion and the difficulties it has faced with the three full-scale department stores.

The Summit Park store debuted in the mall in 1972 and was expanded to 70,000 square feet in 1978. Jenss expects to transfer some of the 85, mostly part-time staffers from that location to its main Boulevard Mall store and related shops.

In addition to the 80,000-square-foot headquarters store, Jenss also operates the 10,000-square-foot Jenss Decor shop, along with a 4,000-square-foot card and collectibles shop and a 2,000-square-foot craft jewelry boutique.

It is also a partner in Jenss/Reeds stores, which are combination gift and fine jewelry boutiques, in Rochester and Erie, Pa. A third Jenss/Reeds will open in Niles, Ohio, in July.

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