By Bob Uphues
Charlene Taglia and Christina Serritella were first in line. Actually, as regular "mall walkers," they'd come to the North Riverside Park Mall early on Thursday but made sure to wander over to the entrance of Carson Pirie Scott, which was officially reopening its doors after being closed since a fire last November.
Taglia, who worked at the North Riverside Carson's until retiring seven years ago, and a host of more than 100 people who showed up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony Thursday morning, couldn't wait to get inside again.
"I was devastated," said Taglia, who was forced to travel out to the Carson's at the Yorktown Center in Lombard to do her Christmas shopping last year. "We missed this store."
"It was terrible," she said. "I've shopped here since it opened."
If it was bad for loyal shoppers like Taglia and Serritella, the loss of Carson's for the past four months was worse for the company, the store's employees, and the village of North Riverside. An entire holiday season of shopping was lost when smoke from a loading dock fire traveled throughout the store early on the morning of Nov. 12.
"The Christmas selling season represents about 25 percent of the store's annual volume, so obviously closing a store is not a decision you make lightly," said Stephen Byers, executive vice president of Bon Ton Stores, which is Carson's parent company. "But it was the right decision."
It was the first Christmas shopping season North Riverside Carson's had missed in 40 years.
"They say there's always a silver lining when something tragic happens," said North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr., who spoke prior to the ribbon-cutting. "Carson's, we missed you. We welcome you back and wish you all the best."
The closure affected about 130 employees, who were placed at other Carson's locations during the store's closure. One longtime employee told the Landmark she had been relocated to the chain's Harlem-Irving Plaza store during the holiday season.
That location was actually somewhat closer to her residence, "but I sure am glad to be back home [in North Riverside]," she said.
Its closure was felt keenly by North Riverside, which depends on sales tax revenues to fund village services. Because sales tax revenues generated by individual stores is confidential information, it's tough to say exactly how much revenue the village lost from the store being closed during a four-month stretch that included the Christmas shopping season.
And because the state of Illinois still has not released sales tax information from December, village officials were not yet able to make a year-over-year comparison to see exactly how the loss of Carson's affected the village.
However, North Riverside Finance Director Sue Scarpiniti said the village's sales tax revenues in November 2014 were less than the village had budgeted.
With new businesses like Costco, Chick-fil-A and Red Robin joining the party in 2014, North Riverside officials estimated that sales tax revenues in November 2014 would be 15 percent higher than they were in 2013.
At the end of November, even having missed out on half a month's worth of sales tax revenues from Carson's, North Riverside saw a 13.5 percent increase year over year from 2013, said Scarpiniti , who characterized the lost Carson's revenue as "substantial."
"If Carson's receipts had done what they normally do, we would've seen 3 percent total increase [in November] over our projections," Scarpiniti said, "so like 18 percent more than November 2013."
But none of that was on the minds of shoppers who crowded around the entrance of the store Thursday morning to hear speeches from store, mall and village officials before heading inside to see the spruced-up store.
Evelyn Edmond, a Maywood resident and Carson's regular was glad the store was back in business.
"I sure have [missed it]," said Edmond, who has been shopping at the North Riverside Carson's for the past decade. "This is my store. I come here once or twice a week."
A day earlier, on Feb. 25, the store held a VIP "thank you" event for about 250 North Riverside officials, emergency service personnel and their families, and for first responders from the 10 other communities who aided in extinguishing the fire last November.
The store quietly opened its doors to the public for a soft reopening on Feb. 20.