HAVERHILL — After years of being empty and rumors about what new business might move into the former Kmart building in Westgate Plaza, the answer appears to have been right next door.
City officials said the Demoulas family, which owns the plaza, has plans to move their Market Basket from one end of the plaza to the other and into a larger building once occupied by W.T. Grant and then Kmart, which closed seven years ago.
City officials said they have tried to find a tenant to replace Kmart after the economic loss the city suffered when the retailer closed. They said they had referred a number of interested parties to the Demoulas organization over the years, but nothing ever came of it.
Yesterday, Economic Development and Planning Director William Pillsbury said he spoke to engineers from Demoulas last week about the company's plans for a bigger Market Basket in Westgate Plaza.
"All indications are that the project is going to move forward," Pillsbury said. "It's an extremely exciting project for Haverhill to see the reuse of the Kmart building as a Market Basket store."
Pillsbury said the company's plans include redeveloping the existing Market Basket building in the plaza and populate it with other retailers.
"They may need to go through some preliminary work with the Board of Appeals regards parking, as the engineering guys indicated they may need some relief with parking there," Pillsbury said. "We'll do everything we can to work with them to expedite this project."
The manager of Demoulas at Westgate referred all questions to the corporate office in Tewksbury. Messages left with the corporate office were not returned.
After Kmart in Haverhill closed its doors in 2003, rumors have floated around that other businesses were interested in opening there, including Sears and Target. Several years ago, BJs opened in the Ward Hill Business Park, then Target and Lowe's opened in the Broadway Business Park.
"The Westgate location has the makings for a supreme and premier shopping center," said local real estate agent Frank Novak.
He said the last thing Haverhill needs is another Woolworth Building, which continues to remain unoccupied at the eastern end of Merrimack Street.
"In a shopping center, or in a downtown, businesses want other businesses to exist so they can benefit from their customer traffic," Novak said about the many smaller businesses operating in Westgate Plaza.
Pillsbury said people have speculated for years as to why the Demoulas company had not found another tenant for the Kmart building.
"Up to this point they had not taken action on any referrals that we made," Pillsbury said. "They had future plans, which they are now acting on, to put a larger store in the Kmart footprint."
Mayor James Fiorentini said a larger Market Basket would make Westgate Plaza an even better shopping center and that it might bring additional jobs to the city.
He said the company plans to aggressively market the building it plans to move its Market Basket operation from.
"We always figured the Demoulas family planned on using it," Fiorentini said about the Kmart building. "Even during the recession Haverhill continues to do well. We have the parking garage being built, we have Sonic looking to open here, Subway is looking to open downtown and we have the new Hayes building opening on Granite Street. We're absolutely thrilled and we feel that this sends a message that Haverhill is a good place to do business and a good place to invest."
In January 2003, Kmart Corp. announced it was closing 326 stores, including the Kmart in Westgate Plaza, as part of its restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
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