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As Martin’s Shutters Its Last Stores in Richmond, Neighboring Merchants Look to the Future

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The Brook Run Shopping Center is an unremarkable place, save for one unusual feature: In the late 1990s, it was constructed around the remains of Confederate earthworks, the outer defensive line that once protected Richmond from the Union army.

Few visit the fortifications, which are fenced and marked with signs. Shreds of what might have been a Confederate flag hang overhead, along with the faded remains of an American flag and another one, unidentifiable.

Brook Run is also the site of Martin’s last stand. The Martin’s Food Market here is one of the final four to close in August, and one of seven in the Richmond area that are not being replaced by Publix stores.

As Richmonders await the opening of shiny new stores, merchants at Brook Run are warily eyeing a Martin’s-less future.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” says hearing aid specialist Chester Mullins, who opened his office in Brook Run in 2000. “It’s going to be tough.”

The Mullins Hearing Aid Center is a neat and narrow office a few doors down from Martin’s. The grocery store has been busy for as long as Mullins can remember, boosted by the buses that arrive from retirement community Westminster Canterbury. “There are more people in there with gray hair, or blue hair, than anybody else,” he observes.

It’s not that grocery shoppers often stopped in to buy hearing aids, but the flow of people into the shopping center has helped attract business, as does Mullins’ sign advertising free hearing checks.

Would he consider moving his office? “I don’t want to,” Mullins says. “I hope not. But it just depends on what happens. I can’t think that Wheeler would allow that space to stay empty.”

Wheeler Real Estate Co. is staying tight-lipped. “At this time, the company will not be providing any details on the Martin’s space which is still open and operating,” Laura Nguyen, director of investor relations for the Wheeler Real Estate Investment Trust, says via email. On its website, Wheeler says the space, which is more than 58,000 square feet, will become available in September.

“That’s a real tough one,” Brian Glass, senior vice president at brokerage Colliers International, says of Brook Run. “That’s a very, very tough situation. And that’s going to have to be something very creative.”

Glass, an expert in the Richmond retail landscape, has seen former grocery stores turned into offices, medical facilities and even entertainment centers, such as indoor trampoline parks. Richmond newcomers Aldi and Lidl generally don’t like existing grocery spaces, Glass says. Lidl builds distinctive modern structures, and Aldi prefers freestanding buildings.

Richmond is already an anomaly, Glass says. It has much more retail square footage per person than similar metropolitan areas. He says his most recent retail report, from early 2016, shows that the Richmond area had 79.2 million square feet of retail for its 1.3 million people, with a 6.6 percent vacancy rate, he says. The Charlotte area, with 1 million more people, had less: 62.7 million square feet of retail, with a vacancy rate of 7.3 percent.

Looking at the area’s soon-to-close Martin’s stores, Glass anticipates some challenges filling the spaces. “Some of them will [have] a very long vacancy period before someone comes in,” he says.

That’s what happened less than three miles away, in the 1970s-era Dumbarton Square Shopping Center at Staples Mill and Hilliard roads. The shopping center’s one claim to fame is that, as an astute Reddit user pointed out last year, its angled sign is literally “dumb art, on a square.”

The Martin’s anchoring Dumbarton Square closed two years ago, in July 2015, and the center has languished since. Between the former grocery store and a shuttered Shoney’s, vacant storefronts outnumber the occupied ones. There’s a payday loan business, a Jazzercise outpost, New Top’s China, Jonulf’s Hair Fashions and 2M Market & Deli.

But there is one bright spot on the shopping strip.

The small Mediterranean market has defied the odds and grown its business by 25 percent since Martin’s departure, thanks to the efforts of its ebullient owner, Adis Majkovic. The grocer is known for pushing samples over the counter for new customers to try: tabbouleh, hummus, orzo. “Taste my food,” he commands. “Please.”

Majkovic is a native of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He emigrated to Richmond in 1995, after the war, and joined his wife, Amira, here. He leased the Dumbarton Square location 16 years ago because of its proximity to the interchange of Interstates 95 and 64.

Four months ago, he placed a large banner — bigger even than the for-lease sign behind it — on the grass facing Staples Mill Road. It shows Majkovic’s broad, smiling face and says, “NEW Try my Burgers and Pizzas!”

He needed the sign to draw in new customers who may appreciate a homemade burger but aren’t familiar with Mediterranean food, he says. “And after that, I want to tell them, ‘Hey, listen, here is burgers, your food. But let me give you a little bit chicken salad to taste. Let me give you a little bit hummus to taste.”

Majkovic works seven days a week and hasn’t taken a day off in four years. The reason he’s still in business, he says, “is because I make everything from scratch, and I really make good food, you know? So, people follow me, people come see me, even though you know we’re looking for more business. It’s not easy for us, but we are in business. … Hopefully this shopping center is coming back in life.”

There’s good news to report, says Jim Ashby, senior vice president and commercial real estate broker for Cushman & Wakefield | Thalhimer, who represents Dumbarton Square. While other former grocery store buildings languish, a national company has signed a lease for the Martin’s space, and another national company is leasing 10,000 square feet to the right of the former grocery. While Ashby says that he can’t yet name the tenants, “Both will help revitalize that center.” Not only that, but the owner plans to upgrade the buildings, rename the center and replace the infamous sign.

“The square’s a little outdated,” Ashby admits. S

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