WOONSOCKET – The city’s loss will be North Smithfield’s gain as Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse trades in its Diamond Hill Road store for a newer model in the neighboring town’s burgeoning Dowling Village retail center next week.
The latest blow the city’s main retail strip officially takes place on Feb. 13, when Lowe’s will close the local store. The Dowling Village site will open for the first time two days later, said Natalie Turner, a spokeswoman for Lowe’s.
“All employees at Lowe’s Woonsocket store will relocate to the new Lowe’s of North Smithfield,” she said. “In addition, the new location will add approximately 40 seasonal positions to help customers during the spring, which is the home improvement industry’s busiest time of year.”
Lowe’s exit is the latest scene in what’s shaping up a major vanishing act by big box merchandisers in the city’s core retail strip since the 1970s. Wal-Mart pulled out last year, also in favor of a new and bigger location in Dowling Village, and Staples closed its doors a few days ago in a previously planned corporate streamlining.
Mayor Leo T. Fontaine says the city is already plotting strategy for reinventing the shopping zone with the help of the newly reconstituted Woonsocket Redevelopment Agency. The panel that steered the growth of the successful Highland Corporate Park, home of CVS/Caremark, lapsed into dormancy after all the land in the industrial village was sold off in the 1990s, but it was resurrected last month with an infusion of new blood.
One veteran of the RDA, Douglas Brown, returned to the panel, which also includes Roger Bouchard, general manager of radio station WNRI; Julie Larivee, a banker; Albert Beauparlant, a real estate developer; and Paul Gould, an attorney.
Fontaine traces the exodus of retailers from East Woonsocket to Wal-Mart, the first to go. And Wal-Mart, he said, might not have been so quick to relocate to Dowling Village had its now-defunct plans for a local expansion not been waylaid for so long by lawsuits leveled against the company by residential opponents.
“It goes to show just how important it is to support business in the community,” said Fontaine. “Wal-Mart was an anchor in that area and when Wal-Mart walked out it led some others to follow. Unfortunately, is going to take some time to rebuild that area for retail again.”
A long time, indeed, if investors look at Diamond Hill Road the same way Lowe’s does.
“Lowe’s primary focus is on serving our customers in the best possible manner and in this case, that means a new store in a location where customers are telling us they prefer to shop,” Turner told The Call. “The current location in Woonsocket is situated on Diamond Hill Road which is not accessible for the larger market. Moving to a new location ensures we can continue to serve our customers in the best possible way as well as begin servicing new customers in the North Smithfield area.”
But Fontaine is still holding out hope for a retail revival on Diamond Hill Road, and the light is shining, ironically, from the company that led the retail flight.
Despite Wal-Mart’s public pronouncements that it’s gone for good, at least two web sites that inventory current construction bids issued by private industry have released specifications for a multi-million-dollar Wal-Mart venture at the site of the closed store. Fontaine views a recent spiffing-up of the closed store as additional evidence that “Wal-Mart is at least planning to do something with that location.”
Yesterday, bargain-hunters were already scarfing up the closeout deals at Lowe’s, as the store attempts to empty shelves in anticipation of the move. From snow blowers to shower fixtures, everything in the store has been marked down from 25 to 50 percent for the “relocation sale.”
“Even the nuts and bolts are 50 percent off,” said Jeannine DiCocco of North Smithfield.
“You can’t beat it,” her friend chimed in.
The new store in Dowling Village will be a state-of-the-art model for the Mooresville, N.C.-based company. The store encompasses nearly 103,000 square feet of indoor retail space, plus an adjacent, outdoor garden center and a parking lot big enough to accommodate 450 vehicles. Founded in 1946, the company operates roughly 1,745 home improvement center in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
“A store of this size represents an investment of more than $16.5 million and employs 125 people,” Turner said of the Dowling Village site.
Turner said the store will open its doors to the public for the first time at 6 a.m. on Feb. 15. A ceremonial grand opening will be held on Feb. 21, with festivities to include a promotion designed to support volunteer home construction by the non-profit Habitat for Humanity organization.
Lowe’s is the just the latest, but not the last, evidence that Dowling Village is emerging as the preferred launching pad for national merchandisers. Aldi, a discount supermarket chain headquartered in Germany, Kohl’s, a department store that carries men’s and women’s apparel, and Denny’s Restaurant are already in some phase of planning or construction in the sprawling retail center just over the Woonsocket line.
Additionally, a Walgreen’s pharmacy will go toe-to-toe with its chief competitor – CVS – at a site directly across the street from the latter pharmacy’s store on Eddie Dowling Highway, on the fringe of Dowling Village.