Sunnyland Square facelift under way

Improved site and new anchor tenant accompany higher rents; a number of businesses forced to leave center

Larry Stahlberg, owner of Merry Maids in the Sunnyland Square shopping center, expects the remodel and the addition of Trader Joe’s to increase his business’s name recognition, as well as revitalize the area in general.

Heidi Schiller
   Everyone agrees that the addition of Trader Joe’s and the remodel of Sunnyland Square will change the area around James and Alabama streets.
   Not everyone agrees as to whether that is such a good thing.
   Many see the shopping center’s $2.5 million remodel and opening of Trader Joe’s as a boon that will revitalize the area and attract scores of new customers.
   Others see the subsequent departure of many of its former tenants as a strike to the area’s funky, friendly and local atmosphere, as well as having concerns over the impact it will have on traffic.
   Ron Clark and his sisters, Patrice and Linda, inherited Sunnyland Square from their father, Doug, who built Clark’s Shop Rite grocery store in 1965 — what became the Bellingham Red Apple and will now be home to Trader Joe’s.
   Doug gradually built out the rest of the shopping center by 1970, Ron said.
   Some of the center’s original tenants included Benson’s Pharmacy and the Department of Motor Vehicles, where John Arrigoni, the building’s property manager, remembers getting his first license when he turned 16.
   Clark said he decided to remodel the center before Trader Joe’s signed a lease for the space.
   “It really needed it,” he said, citing competition from Barkley Village as one of the reasons. “We did it for the area … it was just time.”
   The remodel, which is expected to be completed in August, will transform what Arrigoni called the shopping center’s “very ‘80s” façade into an attractive, contemporary building.
   Its new look will include a combination of masonry and glass, and will accentuate individual spaces with different storefronts and rooflines, Arrigoni said.
   “It’s a new modern look, with Trader Joe’s being the anchor tenant,” he said.
   Clark and Arrigoni pursued Trader Joe’s as a potential tenant for four years by contacting their corporate office. At first, the company’s representatives said they were not interested in Bellingham at the time, and said they might be in five years.
   “We just kind of gave up on them,” Clark said. “Then my younger sister wrote them a letter a year or two later, requesting they look into the Bellingham area again, and they did. They looked at some other places and chose us.”

   Most of the shopping center’s tenants’ leases became month-to-month in the last 18 months, and four of the tenants left before the remodel.
   “It wouldn’t have been viable for them to stay,” Arrigoni said.
   He said the tenants could have temporarily left during the remodel and then returned, but that most of them probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the new rent, he said, adding that most businesses don’t like to move twice in a short period of time.
   Currently, four tenants remain in the shopping center: Papa Murphy’s, Merry Maids, Cruisin Coffee, and Bellingham Appliance Center. The first three will remain in the shopping center indefinitely, and Bellingham Appliance will leave in April, Arrigoni said.
   The remodeled spaces will double in rent from a $10 to $12 per-square-foot range to a $20 to $25 per-square-foot range, Arrigoni said. And while he cannot disclose any of the center’s potential future tenants, he said the remodel will generate a lot of interest the area.
   “The county and everyone in town is talking about Trader Joe’s, and several property owners around there are looking at property development,” he said, although he did not say which ones.

Starbucks shows interest
   A rumor that Starbucks would take over Lee’s Drive In, a family owned restaurant that has been located on the corner of James and Alabama streets since 1957, circulated briefly among business owners in the area.
   Lee’s owner, Tim Trott, said he received an inquiry from a Starbucks real estate representative asking if he’d be interested in selling, and for what price.
   Trott’s offer — he did not disclose the price — was too high for Starbucks, he said.
   He received another offer for $1.2 million, which he also turned down. The property is not currently listed for sale, but he thinks he may reconsider when Trader Joe’s opens and creates more interest in the area, he said. If he eventually sells the site, he would downsize and relocate the business to a different location, he said.
   Starbucks’ district manager, Lara Anderson, confirmed that the company’s real estate team looked at the site, but that the company had no current plans to open a store in that area. She added, however, that the company “looks at any location that comes our way, and gets a lot of solicitations too… we’re always looking for great locations.”
   Clark said he, too, expects the remodel will revitalize the entire area.
   “It’s going to pick up James Street tremendously, as far as attracting tenants to the whole area,” he said.
   Larry Stahlberg’s business, a Merry Maids franchise that serves Whatcom, Island and Skagit counties, has been located in Sunnyland Square for 10 years, and he expects to stay in the space even if his rent increases.
   “Our expectation is to stay in this location. If somebody has a far different (rent) than what we’ve discussed so far, then that might change, but right now we have a good partnership with the owners of the building,” Stahlberg said, adding that he will hold lease-renewal discussions with the owners this summer.
   He said that while Merry Maids has very little walk-in business, the increased foot traffic to the shopping center will increase Merry Maids’ name recognition.
   And as for the remodel’s impact on the area, he, too, said it would be positive by attracting customers from Whatcom and Skagit counties, as well as Canadians, who are familiar with Trader Joe’s name and products.
   He said he has heard that the owners have been talking with several national franchises interested in moving to Sunnyland Square, but didn’t know which ones.

Mixed feelings
   Not everyone is as excited about the changes.
   Jay Benton’s video rental store, Premier Video, was located in Sunnyland Square for eight years before moving to Birchwood Avenue in the Albertson’s shopping center at the end of January.
   Benton said he had a lease that ran through August, but that the management company told him they wouldn’t renew his lease at that time because they had bigger plans for the area, he said. Instead, he said they struck a deal and moved him to the new location, even though he said he probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the increased rent anyway.
   “Basically, I got booted. They’re kicking everyone out of Sunnyland Square,” he said. “I tried to stay. I wanted to stay, after being there eight years, why would I want to move? But they don’t want any mom-and-pop stores there, they only want chain stores.”
   Arrigoni confirmed that the owners assisted Benton’s move and added that the owners would always welcome local tenants, providing they have a good business plan and could afford the rent. The center will likely include a mix of both locally owned and national franchise businesses, he said.
   Benton said that while he can understand people’s excitement over Trader Joe’s, he said he thinks that the company’s move heralds an impending onslaught of other major national chain stores that will push out locally owned, independent businesses.
   “I just think that local businesses, and the people that are property owners, need to put their foot down and not let big chain stores take over everything. The community still wanted me there,” he said. “Local people need to support local businesses.”
   Area residents have mixed feelings about the issue, as well.
   “It’s a two-sided coin,” said Theresa Tripp, Sunnyland Neighborhood Association chair. “On one hand, I’m excited about Trader Joe’s. On the other hand, it will attract people from all over the county and Skagit and Canada. Our feeling is that traffic is going to be a big issue.”
   Tripp said many residents are concerned about pedestrian safety with increased traffic, and would like the city to install well-lit, mid-street pedestrian crossings.
   She, too, is concerned that locally owned businesses are at risk for losing ground in the area because of the remodel.
   “It seems like they’ve all gotten kicked out of there. I was pretty sad to see the video place go,” she said. “As a whole, a lot of us are really excited about (the remodel and Trader Joe’s), but it’s hard to not have something local there. A lot of us in this neighborhood like to shop locally.”




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