Two of The Woodlands’ eight village shopping centers lost anchor grocery stores after Randalls closed its Panther Creek and Grogan’s Mill locations Feb. 15, leaving the community scrambling to ensure the vacancies do not cause the centers to deteriorate, according to local residents and businesses. Located in populated residential areas where township officials said village grocery stores were part of The Woodlands’ plan, the possibility of an extended vacancy has caused both merchants and nearby residents to raise alarms.

“The reality of it is we aren’t going to have something for quite some time, years realistically,” said Rebecca Schner, owner of jewelry store NewLotusMoon in the Grogan’s Mill Village Center, which opened in 2019.

Schner is leading a merchant’s association that sprang up in the center in the wake of the announced closing.

Residents in neighboring villages are also affected. Carol Stromatt, a former township director and current member of the Indian Springs Village Association, said the Panther Creek center’s proximity to that village and particularly to senior residential areas could be problematic for those without transportation.

“That is critical in the Indian Springs Village because of the many elderly folks who live in the numerous apartments within a block of the shopping center,” Stromatt said.

According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey data, 17.6% of residents in ZIP code 77381 where the Panther Creek center is located and 12% of residents in ZIP code 77380 where the Grogan’s Mill center is located are age 65 and older.

Leasing companies said they are working to fill the spaces, but the timeline is uncertain.

Eric Davidson, senior manager of communications for Regency Centers, which leases the Panther Creek Village Center, said The Woodlands location is a favorable one, and he believes the space will be filled.

“You could fill it quickly, or you could fill it correctly. We want to make sure we have the right thing coming in,” Davidson said.

Leasing challenges

Restrictions on the uses of the anchor spaces could help ensure they are filled with new grocery stores, as any other use would require special approval from property owners, officials said.

Another Randalls store in The Woodlands area, located at 9420 College Park Drive, closed in late 2018 but was not deed-restricted to become a grocery store. In February, Houston-based dine-in movie theater Star Cinema Grill announced it would open a location at that site by late 2020. Under the existing land-use designations, the Grogan’s Mill and Panther Creek sites must be used as commercial locations, said Don Norrell, general manager of The Woodlands Township. A warranty deed further restricts the Grogan’s Mill space for use as a grocery store, he said.

“The eventual reuse of the store properties will have to comply with existing initial land-use designations,” Norrell said.

The designation is a covenant tied to the title to the property, which limits the permissible land uses and sets other constraints. It is binding on future owners, and a change requires approval by all parties—the property owner, the Woodlands Development Co. and the Development Standards Committee, Norrell said.

Joe Rollins, director of real estate for Randalls’ parent company Albertsons, said the restrictions mean leasing the stores for anything other than a grocery store would require landlord approval in Panther Creek or approval from the adjoining shopping center owner in Grogan’s Mill.

“For the Grogan’s Mill location, we do own that location, but our preference would be to lease the space as opposed to selling it,” Rollins said in an email. Rollins said the company will remain liable for leases and maintenance obligations at both locations. He said the exact proposed leasing rates for the locations have not yet been determined while a market study is underway. Although The Woodlands Township does not have the power to influence how quickly the spaces are filled, Ann Snyder, a member of The Woodlands Township board of directors and its ad hoc economic development committee, said the committee plans to work with Randalls, the various village associations and shopping centers in 2020 to encourage improvements and new tenants. Any proposed action will need to be approved by the board of directors, she said.

Bruce Cunningham, a Grogan’s Mill resident and former village association president, said a community survey may be distributed by the association to gauge resident feedback. Cunningham also helps to run the weekly farmers market at the village center and has been involved with efforts to retain an anchor for the complex. He said he feels little can be done at the township level to ensure a timely replacement.

“I met with the economic development committee ... and they said they could not do anything specifically to help,” Cunningham said. “Everyone wants a grocery store that would provide the same basic needs that Randalls would, but there might be other things that can go in.”

Another former Randalls space at Sawdust and Budde roads was subdivided into smaller stores more than 10 years ago, said Adam Blustein, vice president of leasing with Global Realty and Management, which leases space at the Sawdust center.

Other stores, including the Interfaith Hand Me Up shop, which occupies 22,000 square feet, have moved in to fill that space, he said.

“You want to try to put the right tenants in there that are a complement to the community,” he said.

Businesses band together

Cunningham said a main concern from businesses at the Grogan’s Mill center is that despite its prime location in an affluent community, a center with large vacant spaces is bad for both business and residents.

“The stores are all concerned that they are going to lose business,” he said. “Then it will be declared a deserted property, and ... it will be downhill from there.”

The small-business owners in the Grogan’s Mill center began to organize a merchants association in February in light of the grocery store closures. Schner said the goal of the group is to make the property owners accountable and to facilitate communication between the township and property owners. Schner said the Randalls closure could be the catalyst for change that she believes the aging center has needed. •“For me as a business owner ... I’m hoping this is the impetus of change for this center to get the resurgence in the community it’s needed for decades,” Schner said.

The Woodlands Children’s Museum, located in the Panther Creek Shopping Center since 2010, is also watching the closing as it considers whether to renew its lease in the center as it outgrows its 11,000-square-foot space.

Angela Colton, executive director of the museum, said the exact effects of an empty space were unclear.

“It could affect last minute, ‘If you’ll just let mommy go to the grocery store we’ll do that,’ visit,” she said.

Effects on seniors

Schner said she believes the loss of a grocery store with a pharmacy in the village centers will be particularly felt by senior citizens.

“There’s an enormous population of elderly people ... that [was] reliant on the pharmacy in Randalls,” she said. According to U.S. census data from 2017, 4,147 adults age 65 or older lived within the census tracts surrounding the Grogan’s Mill center and 4,981 in the tracts adjacent to the Panther Creek center.

Stromatt said because The Panther Creek Shopping Center is located just east of Indian Springs, it also affects individuals in that community. Several apartments that offer U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development subsidized housing for seniors, such as Holly Creek and Copperfield apartments, are also near the former Randalls locations.

“Many [seniors] have no transportation and are dependent upon walking to the shopping center to buy their groceries and have their prescriptions filled,” Stromatt said. “It could be life-threatening or at least a major lifestyle change.”

At the Jan. 20 township board meeting, Chair Gordy Bunch said prescriptions at Randalls had been redirected to CVS stores nearby.

Cindy Lindemann, sales and marketing director with The Forum at The Woodlands, a senior community near the Panther Creek center, said the closure will have a profound effect on their residents.

“They were very upset,” she said. “Some of them can’t drive. ... The nice thing about Randalls being within walking distance, if they can’t see well enough to drive, they could walk themselves over [or] take their scooters over.”

The store was the closest grocery location, and now the residents will rely on H-E-B and Kroger’s locations that are farther away, she said.

“Now they’ve got to rely on their family members to take them. ... So it’s a pretty good impact to take away independence that they had,” Lindemann said.

The closure also reduces grocery store options available to other senior communities.

Mery Mckeown, sales counselor at The Village at The Woodlands Waterway retirement community at 2323 Lake Robbins Drive, The Woodlands, said the community included the Grogan’s Mill Randalls in its monthly shopping trips.

“Unfortunately we’ve been seeing other Randalls in the area close, so we kind of knew that this was going to happen at some point, sadly,” she said.

Ben Thompson contributed to this report.