By STEVEN LEMONGELLO

Staff Writer

“Available” is the one word that can be seen throughout the Ventnor Plaza shopping center.

Of 21 locations listed in a registry of stores at the Wellington Avenue location, 12 were empty and listed as available for rent, including what was once the Peebles department store.

The situation is a common one for local shopping centers. Once-busy strip malls now feature more vacant storefronts — and even vacant flagship stores.

While the Pathmark supermarket at Ventnor Plaza is still open next to the closed Peebles, another Pathmark closure at the Cardiff Center in Egg Harbor Township — now the Cardiff Power Center — has left a void that has not been filled. The Forman Mills store across the parking lot is all that remains of several flagship stores that once included Pathmark, Bradlees and a Rickel Home Center.

“A flagship store leaving is always the death knell,” said Richard Perniciaro, dean of facilities, planning and research at Atlantic Cape Community College.

Among the reasons for the decline, he said, “is that shopping centers have evolved.”

“Part of it is a change in strategy. Part of it is that demographics have passed it by,” Perniciaro said. “The outer suburbs are more affluent, so places like the Pleasantville (Shopping Center) serve the local people a lot. That’s how they survive.”

The Pleasantville Shopping Center on Route 40 lost a major tenant when the Pleasantech Academy charter school closed last year, but flagships KMart and Asian Market still anchor a shopping center that features several restaurants and a U.S. Post Office — while the Ventnor post office at the Ventnor Plaza sits at the end of a strip that alternates between tenants such as Island Gym and a liquor store along with many empty storefronts.

“Pleasantville can’t compete with the Hamilton Mall, so it finds its own niche,” Perniciaro said. “Everything in the marketplace is down value, and local shoppers may go to the Hamilton Mall if something is not available.”

As incomes stagnate in the area, he said, down-market retailers have become more popular — often taking up part of a subdivided flagship store, as Dollar Tree has done taking up part of what was once an Acme supermarket on Route 30 in Absecon.

A Dollar Tree also makes up part of what was once a larger flagship store in Ventnor Plaza, with the other half taken up by the now-closed Peebles.

“I feel bad about Peebles,” said Kathie Brady, of the Chelsea Heights section of Atlantic City. “I shopped there a lot. Now I have to go offshore to buy my grandchildren bathing suits and flip-flops. It was one of my favorites, right here just two minutes away.”

Peebles’ closure was a direct result of Hurricane Sandy, shutting permanantly despite hope that it could reopen. But Phil Schneider, vice president and asset manager of Ventnor Plaza owner Lamar Companies, said that the 280,000-square-foot Peebles store was already not doing well in that location when Lamar bought the shopping center from previous owner Bellevue Properties’ lenders in April 2012.

Schneider said Lamar plans an extensive upgrade of the facade to make it cleaner and brighter, as well as a reconstruction of the parking lot — which will include a demolition of a long-empty former Checkers restaurant, which is not part of the plaza complex.

“We buy those types of centers all the time,” Schneider said. “(The work) should beautify the center so that it’s in a much better position than when we bought it. ... It’s going to take some time. We did not expect to buy it in April 2012 and lease it all up by June 2013. The retail market in general, like the economy, is still in a troubled state. There aren’t many retailers (looking to) fill spaces 20,000 square feet and up.”

Lamar’s vision of the complex, he said, was “half-food, half-service.”

“Where’s the pizza guy, where’s the sandwich and subs guy, where’s the doughnut guy, where’s the rib guy,” Schneider said. ‘Whenever you’re down the shore, food (shops) should do fantastic. And whether it’s summer or you live there, service should do well. We have a tailor, a nail salon, H&R Block, a number of those folks.”

Miriam Holzman, of Ventnor, said she hopes the strategy will be successful.

“I’d love to see some new shops or boutiques in here,” she said. “It’s a shame to see it going downhill.”

As for those businesses that find themselves isolated by flagships and other stores leaving, it can be difficult — but manageable.

‘We’re only concerned with our business,” said Ian Walterson of Oceanside Wellness and Sport at Cardiff Plaza. “Our business is a specialty business and draws people outside of this (shopping) circle.”

Added Walterson, “We can’t be worried about what the owner is going to do with the shopping center. We have a year left on our lease. We’re negotiating more at this point, but we’re comfortable with our lease right now.”

But, he said, “If we ever had to (leave)? We’re fairly mobile. We can move pretty quick.”

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