ROTTERDAM -- Mall management and the town supervisor are expressing confidence in the future of ViaPort Rotterdam despite plans for the Kmart discount department store to close by the end of the year.
The Kmart is one of 142 Kmart and Sears stores being closed nationwide as part of a bankruptcy filing on Monday by Sears Holdings, the parent company of Sears and Kmart stores. With the closings of Macy's and Sears in recent years, the Kmart was West Campell Road mall's last big-box anchor store.
"This was a big-company decision, not a town decision or a ViaPort decision," said Town Supervisor Steven A. Tommasone. "In the short-term it's troublesome, but in the long term they will rework it. I have confidence in the ownership and the management at the mall."
ViaPort Rotterdam Marketing Director Alan Fanitzi said mall management has yet to be notified of the closing, despite news reports based on Sears Holdings' announcement on Monday. He said management wouldn't comment on the closing until it receives official word.
He noted, however, that there is also good news: ViaPort is about to unveil the first major exhibit renovation to the ViaPort Aquarium, and has new tenants coming into the 583,849-square-foot mall. With Kmart excluded, Fanitzi said the mall is 75 percent occupied.
Meanwhile, an online petition called "Keep Kmart in ViaPort open!" has been started. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, it had 47 supporters; the goal is 2,000.
"Kmart has items and deals that Walmart and Target do not have," wrote one signer whose name wasn't displayed. "I have gone here since my childhood and enjoy the atmosphere and seeing some of the people on staff that have been there for so many years ..."
In its bankruptcy announcement, Sears Holdings said the stores being closed were "unprofitable."
ViaPort, formerly called Rotterdam Square, lost its Sears store in 2016 and its Macy's anchor in 2015. The mall, which opened in 1988, struggled for years before being bought in 2015 by Via Properties, a Turkish company that has worked to re-invent it.
Kmarts were once found in many Capital Region malls or shopping centers, but the others already closed. With the closing of Rotterdam, the only Kmart stores left near the Capital Region will be in Greenwich and Queensbury.
Tony Riccardi, an Albany-based economist and actuary, said he's been watching for decades as the once-dominant Sears lost market to budget retailers like Walmart, and then in recent years lost more market share with the rise of online shopping.
On top of that, he said Rotterdam is a peripheral location to the rest of the Capital Region.
"It's just the collapse of the big box retail market, and then in Rotterdam you're got a situation where you're not in a prime location," Riccardi said.
ViaPort management has been working to bring new uses to the mall.
The state moved a Department of Taxation and Finance call center into the former Macy's space last year. That facility has around 700 employees during tax season, and between 300 and 400 employees currently, Fanitizi said.
"The mall is actually pretty strong right now," Fanitizi said.
A SEFCU credit union branch opened this week, he said, and a Habitat for Humanity Restore sales outlet is being prepared, though no opening date is set, he said.
The ViaPort Aquarium on Saturday will unveil its new exhibit, "Amazon Experience," in one of the two tunnels that allow visitors to have the experience of looking at marine life as though they were underwater. The new exhibit, which replaces the Carribean exhibit, will include such Amazon River species as the piranha.
"We anticipate having a significant bump up in attendance due to the Amazon exhibit," said Fanitzi, who estimated more than 300,000 people have paid to visit the aquarium since it opened in late 2016.
"A lot of people come to the aquarium and they've never been here before ... they come to the aquarium and then wander around the mall," he said.
Fanitzi said the mall is also working with the Empire State Aerospace Museum to be able to mount a J-4 Javelin glider in the fountain area at the center of the mall.
Mall management has retained Cushman & Wakefield, a Latham commercial real estate company, to market space in the mall, including the 103,296-square-foot Sears space. Fanitzi wouldn't comment on whether Cushman & Wakefield would also market the Kmart space.
Tommasone said he's been following Sears as it has gone through the financial struggles that led to the bankruptcy filing. "Competition is fierce," he said. "I'm disappointed this is happening, but I'm not surprised, knowing where the company was and where it is today. It's an unfortunate progression for a couple of brands I think are great."
"What I'd like to see happen is for the county, town and mall management work together to try to attract new business to the mall," Tommasone said. "We really need a grocery store on the west side of town."