By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — Yesterday’s grand opening of a Burlington Coat Factory store in Westgate Plaza was a dream come true for some shoppers, a boost to the city’s economy, and for several local charities, a blessing.
Immediately following a 9:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony and its resulting rush of shoppers into the new store, employees loaded vans and trucks with merchandise Burlington Coat donated to Haverhill’s Salvation Army, Ruth’s House and the Angelo Petrocelli Food Pantry at Sacred Hearts Parish.
“It’s God answering prayers,” said Salvation Army Lt. Mari Hardy. “The baby equipment they gave us will go to families who can’t afford to buy these items.”
She and her husband, Salvation Army Lt. Jeff Hardy watched as their van was loaded with items such as baby strollers, high chairs, clothing and housewares. Then a truck from the food pantry at Sacred Hearts pulled up to the front of the store, where boxes of merchandise were stacked.
Bill LaPierre, manager of the food pantry at Sacred Hearts, said the holidays are coming and his pantry and other charitable groups in the city have a need for not only food, but for items such as those provided by Burlington Coat.
“We give it all away and we’re grateful for anything we can get to help in our efforts to help those in need,” LaPierre said.
Kara Mamakos of Bradford was shopping at the new Market Basket in Westgate Plaza and decided to drop by the new Burlington Coat.
“I go to the one in Peabody and they always have a nice selection of good products,” Mamakos said.
Leota Sarette and her mother Carolee Spero did’t mind waiting as store officials prepared to cut the ribbon announcing the store was now open for business.
“I’ve been to the one in Peabody but it’s too far for me,” Sarette said. “This will be a great asset to the city and now we have another place to shop.”
It’s also another place to work as Burlington Coat hired 81 full and part-time employees. City officials said those jobs were needed in light of a loss of about 100 jobs when Lowe’s Home Improvement suddenly closed its Haverhill store last fall.
Tim Torres, regional vice president for Burlington Coat, said the jobs that were filled included receivers, cashiers, general sales associates, customer service supervisors, a receiving manager, as well as two executive positions. Some of those new employees formerly worked at Lowe’s, he said.
“I have high aspirations for this store,” Torres said. “We’re excited about the reception we’ve had from customers.”
City officials said Burlington Coat Factory is an off-price apparel and home product retailer. The new Haverhill store features ladies’ dresses, suits, sportswear, juniors, accessories, menswear, family footwear and children’s clothing. It also includes an assortment of furniture and accessories for baby at Baby Depot, home decor and gifts, along with the largest selection of coats in the nation, company officials said.
Mayor James Fiorentini said Burlington Coat will provide a boost to the city’s economy, especially with the jobs it brings.
“People were feeling down when Lowe’s left and now this is lifting their spirits,” Fiorentini said. “It’s a great morale boost.”
The store held a “soft opening” last Friday so that workers could fine tune their job skills in preparation for yesterday’s official opening.
Jonathan Lara, 23, of Haverhill, said he left a stressful job in collections for a merchandising job at Burlington Coat.
“The company is growing and there’s opportunity to grow with it,” Lara said. “It’s a great job and a great working environment.”
Larissa Colon, 22, of Haverhill worked as a waitress and also in collections before being offered a job with Burlington Coat.
“Now when I wake up in the morning I don’t dread going to work,” she said. “I love this job.”
City officials announced this summer that Burlington Coat Factory would be taking over the former Market Basket space in the plaza, which is just off the highway and is considered a key commercial site in the city. Renovations to the 50,000-square-foot building and the grounds took place throughout the summer in preparation for yesterday’s opening. Market Basket moved out of its building at one end of the plaza earlier this year and into a new and larger building on the other end, once the site of KMart.
Sven Amirian, president of the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce, brought his giant-size wooden scissors to yesterday’s ribbon cutting ceremony. But first, Russell Schaller, territory vice president for Burlington Coat, spoke to a crowd of people who waited for the ribbon to be cut so they could begin shopping.
“We truly want this to be a community store, we want to feel like this is your store and we want you to feel comfortable when you come here,” Schaller said to a round of applause. “We all promise to smile and be friendly, and go out of our way to help ourselves become good members of the community.”
Amirian told the crowd that having this new store open in Haverhill is a sign that the economy is starting to come back and that Haverhill is a place to be.
“When you have an operation like the Burlington Coat Factory believe in this community and believe that this is a viable community to do business in is a wonderful sign,” Amirian said.