Ritchie Highway Shopping Center used to have it all -- Woolworth's, a White Coffee Pot restaurant, Myrtle Allen's women's clothing store and Jerry's for the men. For nearly 40 years, the center was where much of Brooklyn Park shopped, ate and socialized.
But about five years ago, as key tenants went out of business or moved, the shopping complex quickly deteriorated.
"That was the beginning of the end," said Carol Leishear, assistant manger at M. J.'s Card and Gift Shop, a 16-year tenant in the center at Ritchie Highway and Hammonds Lane.
Now, she and other merchants who hung on through the tough years are pinning their hopes on the overhaul of the strip, most of which has stood vacant for two years. Yesterday afternoon, they noted the opening of Hollywood Video -- the first store to open in the renovated and rebuilt 44-year-old shopping center.
Store owners are also eagerly awaiting the opening of the new anchor at the center, a 60,000-square-foot Metro Food Market, set to open in November.
"Things have got to improve; they can't get any worse," said Leishear. "Our everyday customers, they still come in, but we want some new people. We're crossing our fingers."
Some residents say the spruced-up center is another indication that the Brooklyn Park area is taking a turn for the better. They point to the county's renovation of the neighborhood's aging water system, more aggressive zoning enforcement and the planned conversion of the old Brooklyn Park High School into a middle school and community arts center.
"There's a great deal of excitement about the shopping center," said state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, a Democrat who represents the area.
"Years ago, it was the center of the community. With major businesses showing confidence in investing there, it's a real plus."
New York-based U.S. Realty and Investment Co. bought the declining shopping center in 1997, and last month signed a sales contract to buy the adjacent Southview Shopping Center.
Jerry Valerius, director of U.S. Realty, called the properties good business opportunities. He said the real estate company was investing about $20 million in buying and renovating the two shopping centers, which share a large parking lot.
When the real estate company took possession of Ritchie Highway Shopping Center, it was in "awful" condition, Valerius said. "It appeared abandoned, and people treated it as such. Now it will be alive and vital again."
During the past two years, U.S. Realty leveled the south side of the old complex, and built a new strip-style building. In addition to the new Metro supermarket, planned improvements include a repaved parking lot, a new entrance and a covered pedestrian plaza with benches.
Other tenants expected include a nail salon, Rose Shanis Financial Services and possibly a Chinese buffet-style restaurant. Valerius said a Value Village store will move into a vacant space once occupied by a grocery store, and that all tenants will be in the center by the end of the year.
"We're trying to make it a very nice center for people in the neighborhood."
Since the Southview Shopping Center sale is pending, Valerius said he couldn't provide details about plans there.
Valerius said that when the Metro Food Market opens, the Basics grocery store in the Southview Shopping Center -- one of only three businesses remaining in that strip -- will close. He also said that the center's Rite Aid pharmacy plans to move to Ritchie Highway and Hammonds Lane, the former location of Brooklyn Auto World.
For many Brooklyn Park residents, the improved Ritchie Highway Shopping Center is overdue.
"It was a blight on the entire neighborhood," said Arleen Hodges, president of the Olde Brooklyn Park Improvement Association. "Everybody saw it when they traveled up and down Ritchie Highway."
David Greenberg, owner of Greenberg Jewelers, an original tenant at the Ritchie Highway Shopping Center, said he hopes the revamped complex will create more foot traffic for small businesses like his.
"It's a positive thing for me and hopefully for the community also," said Greenberg, whose father moved his jewelry store from Brooklyn to the Ritchie Highway Shopping Center when it opened in 1955. "When you can get a store like a Metro, that's a pretty big deal."
Pub Date: 8/27/99