Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of stories, each looking at key news events over the past 30 years in Rochester. The first story, the closing of the downtown Sibley’s store, is from the first five years of those three decades. The series accompanies the Rochester Business Journal marking its 30th anniversary.
Rochester has endured enormous changes since 1987, especially downtown, which was a bustling area with a vibrant retail scene in those days.
In 1989, when May Department Stores Co. announced it would merge Sibley, Lindsay & Curr Inc. with May’s Kaufmann’s division and close Sibley’s downtown store, Rochester lost a critical piece of the city.
Indeed, Sibley’s downtown store was an iconic piece of Rochester for decades. Its closing, and the changes it heralded, make it a watershed event of the past 30 years.
The May Department Stores chain had acquired Sibley’s in 1986—the local company had been bought in the 1950s by Associated Dry Goods Corp.—and in 1990 the downtown store closed. The St. Louis-based chain would deal downtown retail another blow when it bought McCurdy & Co. Inc. in 1994 and shuttered its downtown store, as well as the B. Forman outlet in Midtown Plaza.
The three locally owned and family-run department stores had long been considered the pinnacle of local retail.
A headline from the Jan. 15, 1990, issue of the Rochester Business Journal states, “Analysts downbeat on Sibley’s Space,” and the story identified the growth of shopping centers in the suburbs as a major factor in Sibley’s closing. David Williamson, retail analyst with Advest Group Inc., noted downtowns were losing popularity among owners of department stores.
“(Downtown areas) are not as vibrant and profitable as they were 15 to 20 years ago,” he said. “All the malls and strip centers built in the last few years have sucked a lot of business from downtown.”
Rochester’s three regional shopping malls—The Mall at Greece Ridge, Marketplace Mall and Eastview Mall—have hundreds of stores that are easily accessible for shoppers living downtown or in any local suburb. Shutting down Sibley’s was verification that malls and strip centers were the future of shopping, and department stores downtown were becoming only a memory.
“After Sibley’s and then Midtown closed, there was a sense of neglect for a long time—a loss of connection in downtown Rochester,” said Christine Ridarsky, city of Rochester historian.
Gilbert McCurdy, along with the owner of the rival B. Forman stores, Maurice Forman, built Midtown as a bulwark against suburban malls.
Analysts also pointed to the rising ease of transportation as a factor in Sibley’s closing.
The 1990 RBJ article notes, “Another factor working against downtown Rochester is the convenience of transportation. One can drive from Corn Hill to the Marketplace Mall in a matter of minutes.”
Back in the mid-1900s and even into the 1980s, it was commonplace for homemakers to take the bus from the suburbs into downtown to shop at Sibley’s and Midtown. But with more women in the workforce and more families owning multiple cars, people gradually ceased taking public transportation and instead took care of their shopping in a nearby suburb.
Since Sibley’s downtown store closed, a variety of activities have occupied the landmark building. Monroe Community College’s Damon Campus occupied the fourth and fifth floors of the building for many years.
Massachusetts-based WinnDevelopment Inc. now owns the Sibley Building. Renamed Sibley Square, Winn is in the midst of developing apartments on floors nine through 12, a residential development called Spectra. Winn is also constructing senior living apartments on floors seven and eight for those 55 and older. Tenants will have at their disposal a media theater, wifi lounge, library and fitness center.
Additionally, the sixth floor of Sibley Square has been converted into office space for High Tech Rochester Inc., a nonprofit company designed to aid entrepreneurs.
But for all of the new ventures at the Sibley building, for many the site will always be remembered for the myriad items lining the department store’s walls and the annual holiday decorations covering the building.
“So many people, particularly those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s and even in the ’80s, remember fondly Sibley’s being a big part of Rochester,” Ridarsky said. “People still talk about memories of meeting under the clock at Sibley’s. For generations of Rochesterians, Sibley’s was the place to be, and so many people have fond memories of it.”
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