Between two escalators at the downtown Anchorage Nordstrom this week, a white display board full of nostalgic handwritten notes highlighted decades of Alaskans’ memories at the store, and what its closure next month will mean for the city.
“Fashion + makeup in Anchorage will never be the same!!” one person wrote.
“Always a fun place to visit and get inspired to dress up!!!" said another. "Now we have to go to Seattle!!!”
And another: “So depressing the only high-end store in ANC is closing.”
Nordstrom’s departure in September is set to leave a huge retail hole in the heart of downtown. At 97,000 square feet, it’s one of the anchors of the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall. It’s the only luxury department store in Alaska.
It’s not clear yet what might take Nordstrom’s place in a major Anchorage shopping center that’s also a short stroll from plenty of local, independent shops and restaurants aimed at both Alaskans and tourists. A representative for the mall said this week that it’s too soon to share updates. Some community leaders are hopeful a new tenant could help transform this pocket of downtown along West Sixth Avenue at D Street.
Andrew Halcro, executive director of the Anchorage Community Development Authority, has two schools of thought on the coming change.
“No. 1 would be, ‘Wow, Nordstrom is like a huge draw and people come downtown and shop at Nordstrom and filter out to smaller, independent (stores),'” he said. “And the other school of thought is, ‘If that’s true, then Nordstrom wouldn’t be moving out.’”
More changes are planned for the block, too, Halcro said. J.C. Penney is in the process of selling the parking garage there, with the sale expected to close at the end of October, Halcro said people involved with the deal told him.
“They have mentioned at least three times the garage will be torn down shortly after purchase,” Halcro said. The ACDA is not involved in the sale or plans for the garage, he said, but has been kept apprised on plans there because the organization manages the garage.
J.C. Penney does not comment on real estate activities, a company spokeswoman said in an email.
Nordstrom’s last day of business will be Sept. 13, the company said in late June. Nordstrom Rack, with its lower prices, will remain open in Midtown Anchorage.
“Looking at our needs in the Anchorage market, we decided it made the most sense to close this store and focus on serving customers at the nearby Rack store as well as online,” a written statement from the company said.
A spokeswoman for the 5th Avenue Mall said this week that no one was available for an interview about what is next for the space.
“We don’t have an update to share at this time,” spokeswoman Delaney Berreth said in an email. “There are a number of factors at play and it’s still too early to share specifics.”
The Municipality of Anchorage has not heard of any specific plans for the building at this point, said Robin Ward, director of the city’s real estate department. But it won’t bode well for downtown, she said, if almost 100,000 square feet of space sits empty.
Nordstrom owns the building and leases the land it sits on from three parties that own the lots. The company will continue to pay that land rent until those leases are up, Ward said.
Nordstrom leaving the property signals the end of an era in Alaska. The state doesn’t have a Bloomingdale’s, or a Macy’s. Other Nordstrom locations in Fairbanks and Kenai closed long ago.
“I worked in the Kenai store in the late 1970s — when oil was flowing through the state," one person wrote on the board of memories at the Anchorage store. “I worked the cosmetic & fine jewelry depts. We were busy all day long. When the cannery workers came through the store, I would follow them with a sample perfume bottle to get rid of the fish smell!”
In the last couple of years, several national brands have closed stores in Alaska, including Sears, Sam’s Club and Toys R Us. Those retailers have also closed stores in the Lower 48 — as has Nordstrom — as they contend with e-commerce and other changing consumer habits.
Outside of Alaska in recent years, Nordstrom has also opened new locations, which the company refers to as “neighborhood service hubs" — places that aren’t stores so much as destinations to pick up online orders and access other personalized services. But those have opened, or plan to open, in the much larger markets of Los Angeles and New York City. Anchorage is too small for that, said Bill Popp, president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp.
“We’re not under threat of having no retail here, it’s far from that," he said. “We’re just a little bit of a different marketplace.”
Anchorage lost about 600 retail jobs last year compared to 2017, according to state employment data, and has continued to shed retail jobs in the first part of 2019. (Across all industries, Anchorage lost about 1,300 jobs in 2018.) About 170 people work at the downtown Nordstrom, which opened in 1975.
Worries about how state budget cuts will affect the economy are yet another factor in the question of what will come next for the downtown property.
“It’s so difficult to give anybody a clear answer because you have all these different things happening at the same time,” Halcro said.
Because of Nordstrom’s prime location downtown, he doesn’t think the property will sit vacant for long.
“Nobody is going to pass that up,” he said. Changes at both the parking garage and Nordstrom’s building could also mean a broader opportunity for someone to dramatically restructure those two city blocks, Halcro said.
Amanda Moser, executive director of the Anchorage Downtown Partnership, pointed to the recent overhaul of the Midtown Mall — where one of the largest spots long sat empty, eventually taken over by the outdoor retailer REI — as a sign of possibilities for the Nordstrom space.
“It is a loss for downtown but I just think we are primed for opportunities for growth and revitalization,” Moser said.
Still, some Anchorage residents are already mourning the loss of a longtime retail fixture — the only store in its league in the whole state. Since the announcement of its closure, people have reminisced on Facebook and elsewhere about shopping trips, visits to the makeup counter for special occasions, and annual photographs with Santa Claus.
Getting at the heart of that nostalgia, the store even had one last Christmas photo shoot on a recent weekend, dubbing it “Christmas in August." Adults and kids alike showed up to get their photo taken with a summertime Santa flanked by miniature Christmas trees near the store’s escalators.
“I am eleven years old and I have been coming here for all of them,” one kid’s note on the memory board reads. “I have so many memories that I cannot write them all down.”