Small businesses weather the Diamond Hill Road big box exodus

Small businesses weather the Diamond Hill Road big box exodus

WOONSOCKET - An exodus of big box stores and smaller national chains has left independent business owners throughout the Diamond Hill Road shopping district watching their corporate neighbors with a fearful eye to see who will be next to leave the once thriving retail community. But for those proclaiming the death of Diamond Hill Road, mom and pop shops say that traffic nearby has thinned, but they intend to weather the storm, which is not the first for the sparsely populated shopping district.

"That actually helped me," Michael Nallen, owner of Ocean of Pets, said of the closing of Walmart over a year ago. "I'm not competing with a chain now."

"I'm sure it helps when people are in the plaza, but we're a destination store," added Nallen.

The business, a specialty shop located near Planet Fitness and Dollar Tree in Diamond Hill Plaza, boasts the largest fresh water and tropical fish selection in Rhode Island, said the owner. The store is also one of the only places in the area to purchase aquarium supplies, dog and cat supplies, live reptiles, birds and pond supplies.

Still, Nallen is quick to point out that the dust hasn't settled since the departure of Lowe's, the gigantic home supplies store that relocated to Dowling Village in North Smithfield last month, leaving a vast empty space on the east side of the plaza. On Thursday, work crews were busy at the sprawling property, still cleaning up after a decade's worth of business in Woonsocket. Another set of workers could be seen in and around the newly vacated Staples store.

"We'll see how things go this summer," Nallen said.

The situation is even more dire at the plaza next door.

"We did feel it when Walmart closed. Less traffic on the road means less traffic here," said Rita Piette, a second generation owner of Piette's Jewelers. "It seems like more and more businesses are leaving, and they're not being replaced."

Piette's occupies a space in a corner of Walnut Hill Plaza, and the family members who run the fine jewelry store can't help but notice that the shopping center's vast parking lot has gotten more empty. The plaza's largest anchor store, Shaw's supermarket, is sandwiched between two vacant stores. A large stretch of empty storefronts beyond the market is broken up only by a small post office. The seven or so vacant spaces forming the center of the plaza lead to a series of corporate-owned businesses including Gamestop, DOTS, and Olympia Sports. Spaces once held by CVS and Fashion Bug seem to have no new prospects.

"We've contacted the property owner about it and had little or no response," said Piette.

Acadia Realty, the national company that appears to have owned the 297,905 square-foot plaza since it was built in 1966, did not return a call for comment.

The somewhat busier neighboring shopping center, Diamond Hill Plaza, was built in 1971 and encompasses around 386,000 square feet of retail space. WP Realty acquired the plaza in 2006, and an outdated website attempts to attract new retailers.

"Route 114 is a busy thoroughfare populated by a wide array of national retailers, including Walmart, Sears, Shaw's Supermarket and CVS," the site's Diamond Hill page explains. "In 2001, a freestanding 165,000-square-foot Lowe's Home Improvement Center was constructed on an adjacent parcel. The center is currently 90 percent occupied," the site reads.

WP Realty also did not return a call from The Breeze requesting updated figures.

Woonsocket's Economic Development Director Matthew Wojcik said he is not aware of any other businesses that are planning to vacate the area, and that rumors that Burlington Coat Factory is planning to leave are false. That company, now the largest corporate anchor at Diamond Hill Plaza, just did a build-out, Wojcik said.

The economic development director pointed out that both plazas have struggled to attract and keep tenants since they were first built. The district drew in several stores that were historically located in downtown Woonsocket on Main Street, such as McCarthy's Department Store, when it first opened, but has never been completely full, with retailers constantly coming and going.

"Their history of occupancy is checkered at best," said Wojcik. At Diamond Hill Plaza, a movie theater and the Child World toy store left long ago.

"Child World was the only shop open, surrounded by a huge empty parking lot, for a long time," Wojcik said.

He also points out that Diamond Hill Road is far from the only business zone in the country feeling the sting of a down economy. The closing of Woonsocket's Staples, for example, was part of a corporate decision to reduce the number of nationwide stores by 23 percent. "There's nothing we can do about that," Wojcik said, adding that he does worry about the effect the struggles of such large national retailers could have on Woonsocket. He said that while he has not heard any bad news about Sears, the retail store that owns several buildings on the west side of Walnut Hill Plaza, he is aware that the corporation, as a whole, is not doing well.

Wojcik said he is still hopeful that Walmart has plans for the large property that it left vacant in 2001. The company still owns the 82,000 square-foot parcel and has issued requests for proposals for construction on the lot twice in the past year. "It doesn't look like they're tearing down that property and the RFPs are for a huge amount of work," said Wojcik.

Piette said that while her family-owned business is still doing well, she also has been watching the lot, hopeful for a little good news.

"We're lucky in a way. We've been family-owned for 60 years, so we do have a following," she said. "These big stores don't let anyone in on their decisions."