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Decision to close store hard for workers, customers
JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff Ralph and Shirley Bowman pack their car after shopping at Smith's Monday afternoon. The two were saddened by the news of Smith's closing on Dec. 6 and said they wished there was some way the employees could work through Christmas before they were laid off.

Come Dec. 6, more than 50 Smith's Food and Drug Center employees will be out of a job - a fact that saddens employees, customers, management, West Park Plaza officials and other mall business owners.

"We'll sure miss this store," said Ralph and Shirley Bowman, longtime shoppers at the store which had been an Albertsons before switching to Smith's in 1998. "I guess now we'll just shop at (Evergreen IGA). They're local," Shirley Bowman said.

"I'm just sick about it," said Doris Spitzer as she loaded groceries into her car outside Smith's Monday afternoon. She and her husband, Cal, live in Shepherd and used to shop at the Heights Smith's before that store closed in May.

Marsha Gilford, assistant vice president for public affairs at Smith's headquarters in Salt Lake City, said the chain is closing the store because it isn't profitable.

Meanwhile, West Park Plaza officials don't want to see the large anchor space go dark. The mall's owners said they have been in contact with several potential tenants, including department stores.

Sandy Oium is business manager for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 4, which represents 46 of the West Park Smith's employees in Billings. She said the union will meet with Smith's officials this week to begin negotiating a severance package for union employees. She said they will likely seek a package much like the Smith's workers in the Heights received when that store closed - one week of severance pay for each year of service up to four weeks, plus unused vacation and personal days. Gilford said the store's five management positions will get a severance of one week of pay for each year served, up to four weeks.

The catch is, the employees may not get any severance unless they stay with Smith's until the store is closed and inventoried - a fact that raised the ire of some customers Monday.

"They could have waited until after Christmas to close the store," Shirley Bowman said. "All those employees and families, it's just real sad."

This requirement also throws a crimp into job-finding plans for employees. Several said if they stay until the store closes in December, they'll miss the holiday hiring season.

Gilford said Smith's lease on the 36,000 square foot space runs until 2005, "so we will list it in hopes of finding another tenant."

The mall's owners, American Capital Group of Santa Barbara, Calif., said they hope to lure an anchor store into the Smith's spot. Jim Taylor, American's chairman, said "we have always viewed that portion of the property as a place where Smith's would eventually leave or expand. We had hoped they would expand into the Osco space and we could put Osco out onto a pad (a free-standing store).

Taylor said the owners have been in talks with several prospective tenants, including several department stores. "It would be premature to speculate more than that," he said.

Of the 340,000 square feet of retail space at West Park Plaza, Taylor said about 16,500 square feet are vacant.

Taylor said the other anchors are happy with the mall. Sears spokesperson Sheryl Lambert said the company has no intention of relocating its Billings store. While the company, based in Chicago, doesn't release details of its lease, she did say the store has 81,000 gross square feet and 136 employees.

Barbara Benton, the manager of Roth's Shoes in West Park Plaza, didn't know how the closure would affect her business. "We've never lost an anchor," she said. "It may make a big difference, seeing a black spot down there."

Kathee Youngblood, the manager of System Seven in the mall, expressed concern for Smith's elderly clientele. "A lot of people can't get around town. They can't get over to the Wal-Mart. Think about an 80-year-old woman in a car, do you want to see her driving to Wal-Mart?"

Smith's acquired the store from Albertsons in 1998, along with one Albertsons Heights store. Last May, Smith's closed the Heights store. Smith's has 127 stores in seven Western states, including stores in Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Helena, Great Falls and Bozeman. In addition to the two Billings stores, Smith's closed its Missoula store in 2002.

However, Gilford said the Bozeman store underwent an extensive remodel, and the company built a new store in Kalispell.

"We're thriving in other Montana communities," she said. "It's really challenging when you don't continue to thrive at a location and can't justify keeping it open much longer. Basically, that's what it boils down to."

The store's end was something most employees suspected, Oium said. "I think its always been in employees' minds since the Heights closure. You like to think the business is going to make it, but until you hear words 'The store is going to close,' it hits home and that's what happened Saturday. They have a lot of long-time employees and lots of single moms and dads who really need jobs.

"Billings loses once again and the big giants on the ends of town take jobs away from our businesses."

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