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Why Dunkirk tried, but failed, to save the city's J.C. Penney

Every meaningful piece of clothing Kathy Forster has ever bought has come from J.C. Penney in Dunkirk's D&F Plaza – her sons' baptism gowns, their communion suits, the shirt and tie her 18-year-old wore to his first job interview.

It's where Dehlia Wysocki of Cassadaga always turns first for clothes that suit her age. Now that it's closing, she's not sure what she'll do.

Pat Kalfas ran the store's personnel department for four decades. She can't bear the thought of losing the place that played such a big part in her life. And she's worried for all the good, hard-working employees she said are the best at what they do.

"Nobody does measurements like Ginny," Kalfas said, referring to another long-term employee. "If you want a good bra, you go see Ginny. Everybody knows that."

The Dunkirk J.C. Penney, which has served the Dunkirk and Fredonia communities since the 1930s, is one of 138 other locations across the country that will close this summer. It's a victim of a gutted middle-class clientele, the company's years of financial decline and a world that prefers to shop by clicking a button as opposed to browsing racks of clothing.

But Dunkirk isn't ready to let J.C. Penney go – or the memories that tie it to the community's more prosperous past. And it put up a fight, even as the last towels and khaki pants went on sale.

Pat Kalfas in front of the soon-to-close J.C. Penney store in the D&F Plaza in Dunkirk. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Dunkirk's mayor contacted J.C. Penney's headquarters in Plano, Texas, to ask the company to reconsider eliminating the store. Residents circulated petitions, called and tweeted at the company's CEO and called on their local and state representatives to join the fight. In March, they held a rally outside the store that drew more than 100 people.

There are other clothing retailers in Dunkirk: T.J. Maxx, Peeble's, Maurice's, Walmart. But they're not Penney's, said Fredonia Trustee Kara Christina, who helped organize support for the store. Those other retailers are not the All-American department store that has been a mainstay in local families' lives for years.

"There's no one at Walmart to help fit your son for a suit for graduation or measure his neck and sleeves for a button-down shirt," she said.

The outpouring of support, however, was not enough. Though the store was profitable, it didn't fit into the company's plans.

In addition to performance, the company looked at local demographics, and the ability to adapt to the company's new focus on its new "omnichannel experience," said Joey Thomas, a J.C. Penney spokesman. That focus is on online order fulfillment, same-day pickup, exchanges and returns – all designed to compete in the cutthroat world of online commerce.

"Taking actions that directly impact our valued associates and loyal customers is difficult, but we'll go to great lengths to relocate esteemed leaders, while providing outplacement support services for those eligible associates who will be leaving the company," said Thomas, referring to the 5,000 workers affected by the decision to close the stores, including 24 employees in Dunkirk.

Once one of the country's most stable retailers, J.C. Penney has struggled for years alongside other middle-tier department stores such as Sears. Meanwhile, more and more cash-strapped Americans – facing stagnant wages and bleak job prospects – have flocked to discount retailers as mid-range stores struggled to find their footing.

A drastic rebrand of J.C. Penney under former Apple vice president Ron Johnson flopped, while fast-fashion retailers such as Zara and H&M drew legions of new customers with its low prices and trendy styles.

"Both American consumers and the brick-and-mortar scene have changed, and J.C. Penney just did not take that into account fast enough," said Nyree Wright, a senior vice president at Qorvis MSLGROUP, an advertising and public relations firm in Washington, D.C. "In general, American consumers have become much savvier with how they spend both their money and time."

Shoppers enter the soon-to-close J.C. Penney store in the D&F Plaza in Dunkirk Wednesday, June 7, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Once in the majority, the American middle class has been hollowing out since 1971, according to Pew Research Center. Since then, a growing wage gap has pushed consumers from that middle ground to the high and low ends of the spectrum. As a result, mid-range retailers serving middle-income shoppers have been squeezed as well. What's left are those serving the discount sector of the retail market (Walmart and T.J. Maxx) and, at the other end, the luxury sector (Nordstrom and Saks 5th Avenue).

If you want to know what happened to J.C. Penney, just take a look at what has happened in Dunkirk, where the department store's woeful saga is playing out in miniature. At one time, Dunkirk was home to several thriving companies providing good-paying jobs that allowed families to earn a stable living.

But one by one, those companies started to disappear – Roblin Steel, Niagara Mohawk, Red Wing foods. Now the region is losing J.C. Penney, as it has lost so much else.

Today, nearly a quarter of the Dunkirk population lives below the poverty line, with a median household income of $28,313, according to the U.S. Census.

The D&F Plaza was once home to Brand Names, Record Giant and Your Host restaurant, as well as a shoe store, a jeweler and another department store.

Today, the stores in the D&F Plaza been replaced by Dollar General, a fast-growing extreme discount store and Ollie's Bargain Outlet, a closeout and salvage store. Residents, such as retired, 40-year J.C. Penney employee Kalfas, wonder what will happen when J.C. Penney "tears the heart out of the plaza."

There are concerns retail conditions might prevent the empty space from being filled, despite great economic hopes pinned to planned pharmaceutical company Athenex, which plans to build a drug manufacturing plant. Attracting a quality tenant for the store front is a priority for Mayor Wilfred Rosas, he wrote in an email.

With help from a cane, Kalfas wistfully walked the store one last time last month. She pointed to the doorway through which she once chased a shoplifter, the loading dock where so much merchandise had poured in over the years. She reflected on the countless hours she sat working under a burnished, wooden "JCP" clock that hung on the wall, carved and gifted by the widowed husband of one of their deceased co-workers.

"I don't think I'll ever go into a Penney's again," Kalfas said. "Not because they'll miss my business – they won't. But because it would be too painful."

J.C. Penney began liquidating May 22. It will close July 31.

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