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Modesto's Century Center quiet without Gottschalks

As John and Wendy Cercado eat a quiet lunch at Ridgway's, their view is the opposite of the holiday hustle and bustle you would expect to see in a shopping center three Saturdays before Christmas.

The near-empty parking lot in front of the former Gottschalks in Century Center is a stark reminder that what was once a major draw to the east Modesto complex is no more.

"It's sad to see the parking lot," said John Cercado. "This time last year, it was hard to find a space."

It's a sentiment shared by shoppers and store owners alike. Since the Fresno-based retailer closed its doors forever in July, traffic has been markedly down in the center. At no time is this more apparent than during the holiday season, when many merchants count on a significant percentage of their yearly sales.

Gottschalks had filled the second anchor spot in the center, alongside Raley's supermarket, since 1980. The 30-year-old complex has 30 active merchants and six available spaces, including the 90,000-square-foot spot once filled by Gottschalks.

Hallmark Gold Crown store Assistant Manager Ruby Rogers said she has noticed a slowdown since the department store closed. She also has heard from customers who miss her store's former neighbor.

"People in this area don't like to go to the mall," said Rogers, who has worked at Hallmark for 13 years. "They'd come here, go shopping, have dinner. It was convenient and part of the experience."

Hallmark shopper Nadia Rihan was picking out cards, but her trips to the store have become less frequent since Gottschalks closed. The Modesto resident used to come to Century Center about 10 times a month, now it's maybe three or four times at most.

"It's sadly quiet now," she said. "I just come for the bank and Hallmark."

While Rogers said her Hallmark store has held its own this holiday season, others haven't been as lucky.

Next door, Taqueria Los Potrillos was all but empty Saturday afternoon.

"People used to go to Gottschalks and then after eat here," said Manager Angelica Flores. "Everyone in the shopping center, the other stores, say it's more slow now. We need something to move into that space."

Besides the foot traffic missing from Gottschalks shoppers sticking around and checking out the other stores, Flores said the store's more than 75 employees would stop, shop and eat in the center as well.

Across the complex, Terry Wiggs — the Terry of Terry's Touch of Gold — has weathered 30 years in Century Center. The jewelry store owner has seen a 75 percent drop in center traffic since Gottschalks' closure. To counteract that drop-off, he has increased his advertising spending to $20,000 this holiday season.

He said his business is holding steady thanks to three decades of loyal customers. But he fears 25 percent more of the retailers in the center will go out of business before any turnaround begins.

"I am very worried. A lot of people are hanging on by a shoestring," he said. "There are people really hurting. It's going to be a rough go."

Times have gotten so tight that Kimco Realty, the New York-based real estate development and management company that owns Century Century, decided not to put up seasonal decorations this year. The ornaments that normally adorn the lampposts were absent and any holiday cheer was put up by the merchants.

"That's why I put something up on the windows," Wiggs said. "You've got to do something for Christmas."

Wiggs remembers years past when parking was at such a premium during the holidays that fights would break out.

"I saw two 70-year-old ladies get into it outside over a space once," he said. "Now we tell our customers, there's great parking available."

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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