Josh Benham

Union County resident Cheryl Reed said she’s shopped at the JCPenney store in La Grande for more than 30 years.

“It has kept my children and grandchildren clothed, and my house in sheets and towels,” Reed said in comments on Facebook. “It was a great store that was and is needed in our community.”

But in mere months, Reed and the rest of the local community will have one less shopping option.

On the heels of the department store chain’s February announcement that it would close more than 100 stores, JCPenney released a list of 138 stores it plans to close, and the downtown store in La Grande is one of the five Oregon locations slated to be shuttered.

In February’s press release, the company, which operates more than 1,000 stores in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, said the closures come due to industry challenges and larger than anticipated drops in sales for the holiday quarter. The release said JCPenney is “implementing a plan to optimize its national retail operations as part of the company’s successful return to profitability.”

Under the plan, it is also closing one supply chain facility in Florida and relocating another one in California.

“These strategic decisions will help align the company’s brick-and-mortar presence with its omni-channel network, thereby redirecting capital resources to invest in locations and initiatives that offer the greatest revenue potential,” the release said.

Daphne Avila, a JCPenney spokesperson, said the La Grande store is slated to close on June 18, bringing its run to an end after more than a century in business.

“We have been proud members of the La Grande community since JCPenney first opened its doors on April 6, 1914,” Avila said. “It is always a difficult decision to close a store because of the impact it has on our dedicated associates and loyal customers.”

News of the closure filtered quickly through the community, and Reed was not alone in her disappointment.

“This is horrible news and will send so many people out of town to shop,” Andrea Asmussen said on Facebook.

Jamie Thiesfeld called the news “very, very sad” and said “my closet is full of (JCPenney clothes, and) 90 percent of my husband’s T-shirts are from (JCPenney).” Thiesfeld also expressed sympathy for the employees.

Avila said the store currently employs 13 people. Companywide, JCPenney is offering voluntary early retirement programs for about 6,000 eligible employees. She said eligible associates who do not remain with the company will receive separation benefits, including on-site career training classes, which assist employees in writing resumes, filling out applications and preparing for interviews.

“JCPenney was one of our oldest businesses and had a long, long history of serving our community,” La Grande Economic Development Director Christine Jarski said. “This is a heartbreaking and significant loss.”

All three Union County Commissioners were caught off guard on Friday when they were told the news.

“JCPenney has been there longer than I have,” said Union County Commissioner Steve McClure. “This is a sad day for the community. I shopped there all the time. I still do.”

Commissioner Donna Beverage said she went shopping there the week before the announcement.

Commissioner Jack Howard said it was “horrible” news and that the closure hurts the economic development of the county.

McClure added this closure will likely have a negative impact on downtown La Grande.

Union County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob Kavanaugh echoed Jarski’s comment that the news was “heartbreaking.”

“My jaw dropped and my heart sank,” Kavanaugh said. “This is a huge loss, a massive loss for Union County.”

The February release said stores marked for closure either required “significant capital to achieve JCPenney’s new brand standard or are minimally cash flow positive today relative to the company’s overall consolidated average.”

“We did not receive advanced notice that JCPenney would be closing here in La Grande,” Jarski said. “Unfortunately, as some of the larger retailers like JCPenney and Macy’s revise their business models to be more in line with online shopping, stores are closing throughout the country.”

Avila said numerous factors determined which stores would be closed, such as store performance, local demographics and the ability for a store to deliver on JCPenney’s growth strategies.

“The 138 stores represent approximately 14 percent of the company’s store portfolio, yet generated less than 5 percent of total annual sales,” Avila said.

The in-store liquidation process is scheduled to begin around April 17, Avila said, which enables the store to sell the remainder of its merchandise at clearance prices.

The other closures in Oregon will occur in Pendleton, The Dalles, Grants Pass and Astoria, all smaller towns, which was a common theme with the majority of store closures nationwide.

“Eighty percent of the stores slated to close are the small prototype stores located in less populated areas of the country,” Avila said.

Jarski said the city will work with La Grande Main Street Downtown to fill the space vacated by JCPenney. Kavanaugh said his first objective is to petition JCPenney to reconsider the closing of the La Grande store. But, he said, he won’t stop there, adding he plans to contact the owner of the building to see about a partnership to bring another clothing store downtown.

“I want to have a conversation around how can we partner to make this specific location incredibly appealing to a retail chain, or court someone in a smaller community who already has an established clothing-, accessory-, shoe-type store that can accommodate the community,” he said. “Then, I’m going to get a hold of some people at city hall and some other organizations who have a lead list. We are going to work these lead lists and contact the principals involved and let them know we have a prime location.”

Local resident Jill Faith summed up the frustration of local shoppers.

“One less place for local people to spend locally, forcing shoppers to go out of town, which almost always means a different state,” Faith said on Facebook.

Several other Facebook users, however, said they will not be affected by the closure. Brittney Kirksey, for instance, cited a lack of variety and the costs as reasons for not frequenting the store. Beverly Bristol said she’s found better products and prices out of town.

Mary Brock said she hopes the closure is not a sign of a larger issue.

“I sincerely hope that something with a lot of energy goes into that large space,” she said over Facebook. “It seems as though in recent years, downtown has had a bit of an upturn. I’d hate to see that downturn again.”

— Observer reporters Emily Adair, Cherise Kaechele and Andrew Cutler contributed to this report.