Bearing signs, baring souls: Community rallies against Albertsons store closing

Officials look at the bottom line while community members say the store closure is too terrible a loss

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Front row: A young Maya Carl stands next to Milton Councilmembers Susan Johnson and Bob Whalen, Public Works Director Steve Peretti and Mayor Debra Perry. Back row: Aspen Combs and her father Rick Combs, Pete Lewis (green jacket) and others who snuck in last minute and Chrissy Carl behind a sign. Cherie Six, in the hat, raises her sign as high as she possibly can. These citizens mean business! Photo by Tami Jackson

Milton’s Albertsons, 2800 Milton Way, is closing for good on Saturday, Sept. 9. That’s according to Sara Osborne, director of public affairs with the Seattle Division of Safeway Inc. and Albertsons LLC. In a public statement, Osborne said performance of the Milton Albertsons has consistently declined despite corporate’s best efforts to improve traffic and sales.

Yet love for the local Albertsons proves strong and citizens of Milton and nearby areas showed up at the store on Aug. 23 bearing signs and baring their souls. Some were quite angry. A bricklayer by trade, Rick Combs stood holding a sign that read: “Save our Milton Albertsons! Call 1-208-395-6200 – thank you.” He showed up to rally on behalf of his wife, Robin, who manages the deli counter and said she has worked for Albertsons these past 27 years.

“Hopefully they (corporate) take some sort of attention. This is disrupting a lot of people’s lives,” Combs said and went on to talk about the store’s peculiar past.

A year ago, Albertsons opened the Milton store after buying it back from the bankrupt Haggen Food & Pharmacy. The purchase was part of a larger transaction in which Albertsons bought a total of 12 Washington stores from Haggen, as stated and reported in Haggen’s bankruptcy records filed at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015. Yet back when Haggen first acquired the Milton grocery building, it had belonged to Albertsons in the first place.

According to Milton Mayor Debra Perry, under the terms of Albertsons’ new purchase agreement the store was supposed to remain open for one full year and Sept. 9 marks that year point. The mayor said she understands that economic viability is a concern for all businesses.

“I appreciate the strategic thinking behind the business plan,” she said. “My concern is that its just numbers on a page and I understand the bottom line. We have to deal with such issues in the city as well but Im not sure they (at headquarters) understand the faces behind the numbers. What we are here in Milton is community and were not just a community that supports our businesses but we also support the people who work in those businesses.”

Of all the things Combs resents about the closure, he cares the most about how Albertsons is now offering to relocate employees but if staff members don’t accept the new assignment, which may involve a larger commute and other uncomfortable considerations, the employee won’t be eligible to receive unemployment benefits. “I’m tired of the way they’ve treated our family and how they’ve treated my wife,” he said. “It’s good to see the community is supporting (this rally) on top of everything else.”

Spreading the wealth: Milton employees are not the only Albertsons staff affected by this closure

Nate Nathe, communications director at UFCW367, said about 70 folks currently work at the Milton Albertsons and the union members there with seniority have the right to bump employees from jobs at other Albertsons stores. Nathe also said there are four other Albertsons stores located in Pierce County for dislocated employees to choose from. There’s a store in Lakewood, Spanaway, Gig Harbor and Tacoma. When asked about firings and layoffs in Milton, Nathe said that employees who were hired in Milton within the last 90 days might not have enough seniority to get into another position, especially not if other Albertsons stores are already working at capacity.

According to Osborne, employees may transfer to an Albertsons or Safeway store per terms consistent with the labor agreement. “We’ve successfully placed nearly every employee who wanted to transfer to another store,” she said. “They inform us of their top three stores to which they would want to transfer, and we accommodate their request as best we can.”

Yet from Osborne’s publicly released statement, this claim causes some rally-goers pause. “In this area, the competition was too significant to sustain the Albertsons store.” Those carrying signs want to know, since Cerberus Capital Management is the single owner of the only two grocery stories in Milton (Safeway and Albertsons), “Who could possibly be the competition?”

They remember a couple of years ago, when Haggen had closed its doors for a year and the lines at Safeway grew so long, and the shelves were not able to remain fully stocked. Then, once Albertsons opened at that location again, the fliers from both Safeway and Albertsons were reportedly the same, having the same offerings, except for the different store name header.

To address that question, Osborne said: “The competition is beyond the city limits of Milton, and retail leakage to large box stores is common in the Milton market.”

Milton City Councilmember Susan Johnson said, “Its a shame when we see businesses continuing to close and we need Albertsons and we support the staff people here. Its a wonderful store and our community needs two stores. We have 600 apartment units going up and were growing. Its a shame that both stores in town are owned by the same company.”

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