New store, new optimism at Santa Rosa Plaza

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With techno music thumping in the background, shoppers weaved between racks of lacy black tops, chic shift dresses and chunky belts Tuesday at Forever 21 in downtown Santa Rosa.

The affordably priced mecca for young fashionistas had just opened its new 44,000-square-foot store, which fills the hole left when Mervyns closed nearly two years ago.

It represents one of the largest retail openings in Santa Rosa in recent years, offering a glimmer of hope as retailers head into their busiest shopping season of the year.

"Over the last several years we've had more stores close than open," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

"I think it's a vote of confidence in the mall. It will help bring traffic back, which helps general retail sales for Santa Rosa. It helps keep the mall relevant and fresh."

Store manager Denny Howe said customers were lined up outside the store when its doors opened early Tuesday afternoon.

"It's been fantastic," Howe said. "They have been waiting for us to open for quite a while."

The Forever 21 chain already operates a smaller store in the Santa Rosa Plaza, but it will be closed as the company expands into a space seven times larger that Mervyns vacated. The new venue is about the same size as the Los Angeles-based chain's flagship store in Pasadena.

"I think it was important to fill that space. It was a large empty space," said Jonathan Coe, president and chief executive officer of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

"In some sense, Forever 21 starts to fill the need for an anchor, for a draw that will bring people downtown to the Plaza and perhaps to shop in other stores in the area."

Construction crews have been working feverishly to remake the space, laying glitter-speckled floors, spreading floral wallpaper and hanging lamps shaped like golden orbs from the ceiling.

On Monday, sequined black skirts spilled out of cardboard boxes, and tall mannequins sported striped leggings and fluffy fur collars as dozens of employees rushed to prepare for opening day.

Tile setter Rich Silva cut slabs down to size outside the store. He said nearly 100 construction workers were hired for the project, which included removing an elevator that used to ferry shoppers between Mervyns' two floors. The Forever 21 store fills the first-floor space, but the second story remains vacant.

"I can only imagine what the heck that must have been to take out," Silva said about the elevator. "These people are really meticulous about their work...they're sticklers for details."

Howe said a grand opening is planned for Dec. 4, but staff pushed for a "soft opening" before Black Friday shoppers hit the streets.

"People who have shopped at Forever 21 in Santa Rosa are going to be surprised by what we're able to offer," Howe said.

The smaller store carried fashions cut for junior sizes. The expanded store will include specialty lines like Love21, tailored for professional women who have outgrown their 20s, and Forever 21+, cut for curvier plus-size figures.

The new store also carries men's and children's clothing, complete with fluffy tulle skirts and tiny cable-knit cardigans.

"We have a &‘tween' area for that girl who wants to look like her older sister," Howe said. "I have a 10-year-old daughter who can't wait to get in here."

Some shoppers also are intrigued by the prospect of expanded boot, accessory and fashion selections.

"I'm really excited about it because it's definitely a store you come to. They have all the new styles," said Angie Bordessa, a a 20-year-old SRJC student.

Howe said 133 employees were hired for the new store, bringing the Santa Rosa Plaza total to 172.

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