By Rick Fromm
By Rick Fromm

     Nothing ever stays the same.

If I’ve learned anything during my 66 years in the physical world, it’s definitely the fact that, no matter how much you don’t want them to, things are going to change. And when I say things, I mean just about everything. So if you haven’t accepted that “truism,” it’s time you wake up and smell the transition.

Even the wonderful community of Decorah is not exempt from change. Just last week, in a stunning announcement, the J.C. Penney Company announced its Decorah facility will be closing its doors by the end of June. Folks around here are understandably upset.

After all, Penney’s has been operating in Decorah for 95 years, and if the numbers don’t lie, it has been an extremely lucrative investment for the nationally known retailer. So why the decision by Penney moguls to shut the doors and turn off the lights? That’s a good question with no easy answer.

Some “experts” have speculated the devastating decision was made because local shoppers have turned to the Internet to solve their clothing/shoe/and various other needs, but that simply isn’t true.

While there’s no question on-line shopping has taken away from the bottom line of countless retailers, the Decorah J.C. Penney store has enjoyed consistent, profit-making support from Decorah, Winneshiek County and area residents. In other words, local customers have spent many of their hard-earned dollars at Penney’s, so trying to place the blame for the company’s decision to lock the doors because residents around these parts just don’t support it financially is just plain wrong. Period.

By all accounts, Decorah area shoppers have spent beaucoup bucks at Penney’s. To a person, everyone I’ve talked to since the announcement has said they shop at Penney’s a lot, and for that reason they can’t understand why it’s closing. Why indeed?

According to the official word from the Decorah Area Chamber of Commerce, the decision was based on a shift in the company’s philosophy.

“The store here has been successful and met a lot of corporate standards and received corporate sales awards,” said Chamber Director Kristina Wiltgen. “I think we’re seeing that this store does not fit the J.C Penney mold. They aren’t able to expand here. They can’t bring in jewelry, Sephora (beauty products) or appliances. They’re just simplifying some of their footprint and dropping what doesn’t fit the mall anchor (scenario).”

Say what? Sounds like corporate mumbo jumbo to me. The store is making money, and has for nearly 100 years. But because it’s a bit different and smaller than most of the other J.C. Penneys, the company is using that as an excuse to shut it down. Doesn’t sound like a well-thought-out business decision to me (It’s not broke so why try to fix it?). However, I’m just a small-town newspaper editor and not a CEO of a nationally known and respected retail chain. So what do I know?

Regardless of the reasons – or non-reasons – the decision was made and one thing remains certain: The loss of J.C. Penney’s will have a profoundly negative impact on downtown Decorah. It may not be a mortal blow to the Decorah retail community, but it will certainly have repercussions. Ironically, this controversial move by corporate will drive more and more small-town shoppers to the Internet. What other choice do they have?

While we’re on the subject, it’s readily apparent downtown Decorah is going through a rough time of late. Numerous empty storefronts are ugly testaments that the folks at Amazon and big-box retailers are ultimately winning the fight for the consumer dollar.

Can this trend be reversed? Perhaps, but it will take a concentrated effort from the remaining downtown stores to organize and promote via consistent advertising in local media and, hopefully, make it appealing for local shoppers to come to Decorah and support the businesses therein. Without a unified, focused, effort to do just that, the downtown retail community might be in harm’s way. In fact, it already is.

I remember writing numerous columns a decade or three ago bemoaning the fact that a new Walmart super store located on the edge of town would have a detrimental effect on downtown Decorah businesses – especially the ones that sell the same type items as Walmart. Yes the revenue from the one-cent local option sales tax is a good thing, but it comes at a price. What was it they told us? Oh yeah, “Competition will be good for everyone.”

No one likes a person who puffs out their chest and says, “I told you so” … but the facts don’t lie.

And, unfortunately, it’s a good assumption the closing of J.C. Penney’s won’t be the last bad news for downtown Decorah. Remember, nothing stays the same.