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Sears Hometown Store corporation says stores not profitable enough, owner locks doors in protest

HOLLY SCHOLZ - The doors of the Prineville Sears store remain locked as its owner disputes corporate mandates.

There is supposed to be a big going-out-of-business sale going on at the Prineville Sears Hometown Store — but maybe it's already gone out of business.

The doors of the Prineville, Madras and Bend Sears Hometown Stores are locked in protest and defiance against moves made by corporate ownership.

Earlier this month, the Sears Hometown Store corporation announced that it would close 90 to 100 underperforming stores in the country, and apparently the Prineville and Madras stores were targeted in that downsizing.

According to Powell Butte resident Heidi Wood, who owns the three stores, when she wouldn't move forward with ending the leases on their buildings with outside owners, Sears terminated the operating contract with her on all three of their area stores.

Wood responded by locking the doors to their Madras and Bend stores, while the building owners in Prineville locked that business.

Wood and her husband, Jeremy, bought the business in Prineville about six years ago. She had opened the Madras store with her mother, Dory Shawver, in 2006.

Reached Tuesday morning, Wood provided this account:

"Sears Corporate had called me about a little over a month ago and asked me if I would be willing to close the Prineville and Madras stores. I explained to them that we had just moved into the Prineville store, (and) that the owners of the building spent quite a bit of money relocating a tenant and getting the building ready for us," she said.

"And we had just signed a five-year lease with them per Sears contract and to all their specifications, and they asked me again if I would be willing to basically walk away from my lease. And I said no, that I couldn't do that to the owners of a building and in a small community, you just don't do that."

Wood added that a few days after that phone call, she was notified that Sears wanted to conduct an audit of her stores.

"In the past 12 years, I've never had a bad audit, and my audit didn't go well. I had had a store trainer come over and go through all my paperwork to make sure that I was all good. Everybody always has areas of improvement to work on, but my audit should have gone fine," said Wood. "When they came over, it wasn't going right, and something was up, I'm not sure what."

A couple weeks later, according to Wood, Sears notified them that they were terminating their contracts on all three stores. Within minutes of being informed of the termination, Wood said, she received a call from her Madras store that Sears officials were there and announced they were liquidating and closing, effectively immediately, the Prineville and Madras stores.

Wood said she then spoke to a Sears official, who said they were closing the stores because "they weren't profitable." Wood, however, says both stores made a profit, but maybe not to the level Sears would like. The representative then told her the stores "were no longer my stores, and that the Sears Corporate had the right to close their stores now."

Sears Hometown & Outlet Stores Inc. is based in Chicago. The company did not return phone calls for comment on the situation.

At the onset of June, the chain had 882 stores, operated by either franchisees or the company.

Wood was particularly upset that the company would suggest they walk away from local property leases. Last month, they had moved from Ochoco Plaza to a new Prineville location on the Madras Highway, where the property owners, Bill and Vicki Goodman, had invested thousands in their building in order to meet Sears' standards. The Woods themselves spent $4,000 just to move their sign.

"It was ironic because two days after we moved, (Sears) put out a statement that they were aggressively pursuing closing between 90 and 100 (underperforming) stores in the second quarter," said Wood, noting that she even volunteered to turn the store leases over to others if they could remain open, but that Sears rejected the offer.

The lease on the Bend building is up in 2021, while the Madras lease will be up in a year and a half.

She said they are currently in a dispute with Sears, and the doors have been locked for two weeks.

Wood had kind words for the Madras property owner, Arthur Erickson, and the manager, Cobalt Property Management. She said they "worked with her" during the recession on rent.

"You create friendships and relationships over the years, so we were on very good terms with all of our buildings."

As for those who have ordered merchandise through the local stores, Wood says they need to contact Sears service center directly.

Again, efforts to reach Sears for comment on the situation, or plans for the future, were unsuccessful.

Wood said their future livelihood is uncertain, but they'll most likely end up doing something in Central Oregon.

"We love the area. Our kids are here. We're very involved in the community, and we'll see what's out there for us," she said, adding that they love Prineville and enjoyed serving their customers.

"We just want our customers to know that we didn't leave Prineville. Sears Hometown Corporate left Prineville, and this was not our choice," Wood said.

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