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After a miserable holiday shopping season, the delay of the new Whole Foods Market and questions about the viability of key department stores, several Coddingtown Mall merchants are starting off the new year by heading for the exits.

At least a half-dozen small retailers at Coddingtown have either closed in recent weeks or plan to close soon, according to interviews with merchants.

?There aren?t too many happy campers there right now,? said Ray Schofield, owner of Toys West, which is closing this week after being at the mall since 1997.

Schofield and his wife, Sharon, plan to continue running their Petaluma store, betting the Petaluma market will bounce back more quickly than Santa Rosa once the recovery arrives.

Four employees are getting laid off at the Coddingtown store, and two at the Petaluma location as Schofield and his wife return to work that store themselves.

?I told all my kids, ?Don?t get into retail,? Schofield said.

The immensity of the problems facing the nation?s retail sector were laid bare Thursday when the International Council of Shopping Centers reported same-store sales fell 2.2 percent in November and December ? the weakest holiday shopping season in at least four decades.

Coddingtown Mall manager Laura Kozup said it is common for malls to have turnover at the end of the year, but admits this year is different.

?It?s a little worse than normal, but it?s very typical,? Kozup said. ?With the economy, there are businesses that are struggling, but we?re moving forward.?

While the weak economy is certainly a factor in the exodus, several merchants said they doubt the long-delayed upgrades to the mall will materialize anytime soon.

A major renovation to the mall has been promised since 2005, when Codding Enterprises sold a 50 percent stake in the mall to Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, the nation?s largest mall owner.

Simon has been unable to get any new major retailers to open in the mall since.

?It doesn?t seem like (the mall owners) have a clear vision, and that uncertainty is driving people away,? said Rick Mariani, owner of Wolf Coffee.

Mariani is trying to sell the cafe, and hopes to wrap up the transaction soon, he said. If all goes well, new owners will reopen a new cafe in the same location, he said.

But that?s atypical. In most cases, owners aren?t selling their businesses but shuttering them entirely. And there are no signs anyone?s lining up to take their places. Accents jewelry shop, Mystic Dance gift shop, and The Sock Spot all closed when their leases expired at the end of the year, Kozup said.

Two other short-term holiday retailers also recently vacated storefronts that until last year were home to Scrap Attack scrapbook store and shoe merchant Two Shoes, Kozup said.

In addition, jewelry store Earthworks is going out of business, joining Vision Center, Hot Dog City and Skate Works, all of which closed last year and remain shuttered. All told, there are 15 storefronts that are either empty or in the process of going out of business at the mall, according to a review by The Press Democrat.

Kozup declined to provide a vacancy rate or the number of retailers who remain at the mall.

The empty storefronts at Coddingtown may be the most visible sign of distress, but retailers are struggling across Sonoma County. Vacant stores accounted for 4.7 percent of the retail space in Sonoma County in the fall, up from 3.5 percent a year earlier, and the number is expected to rise this year, according to Keegan & Coppin, the county?s largest commercial real estate broker.

Coddingtown Mall is working hard to find new tenants for its empty spaces, Kozup said. It just signed a lease for a photography studio that is expected to open in early spring. Kozup also said she recently got a call from a regional retailer looking for a short-term lease to test the local market.

?There are some retailers that are still looking to expand, but they are being more cautious,? Kozup said.

The majority of the closures are at the west end of the mall, near the building Codding Construction built anticipating the arrival of Whole Foods.

But the high-end organic grocer, facing financial trouble as consumers conserve cash, has been forced to push back an opening until 2010.

That?s been a bitter pill to swallow for many merchants who have been anticipating spillover business from a new high-traffic anchor tenant. The former Ralphs supermarket drew about 4,000 customers a day to the mall, Mariani said.

?Whole Foods (would have been) a big driver,? he said.

Exacerbating the uncertainty is the fate of Coddingtown?s department stores, particularly Gottschalks and Macy?s. Gottschalks is on the brink of bankruptcy and Macy?s announced Thursday it will close 11 underperforming stores across the country.

While that?s a mere fraction of its 808 remaining stores, it is enough to make people wonder whether Santa Rosa can support two Macy?s stores in the current climate.

But Lois Codding, vice president of leasing at Codding Enterprises, said she thinks Macy?s isn?t going anywhere.

?I think Macy?s will never want to leave Coddingtown,? she said.

As for Gottschalks, Codding said the Coddingtown store performs well compared with its peers. The closure of Mervyn?s also removes a Gottschalks competitor, making its position here stronger, she said.

But the picture is grim for the 104-year-old Fresno-based retailer. In early December, when Gottschalks reported a $10.1 million loss for the third quarter, the company said it needed a cash infusion to make it through the end of January.

But talks with Everbright Development Overseas to secure a $30 million investment have not produced a deal. The two sides have said they?re still talking.

?I?m not too worried about them at the moment,? Codding said. ?I feel confident that they?re going to pull through.?

But if the chain were to go under, Codding said, it wouldn?t be the end of the world for the mall.

?We just kind of roll with it,? Codding said. ?It wouldn?t be the first time a department store has left us.?

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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