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Downtown Duluth toy store moving to mall area

After 30 years in downtown Duluth, the Explorations toy store is moving to the mall area. It's been at its current location at 201 W. Superior St. for 18 years. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
Ken Weyenberg says declining sales, insufficient parking and outside loitering prompted his decision to move Explorations toy store out of downtown Duluth. Weyenberg has owned the store for eight years. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
Annika Larson, 7, and her mother, Holly Larson, shop at Explorations for a gift for a friend. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
A child-sized piano and chair sit ready for use by young visitors to the Explorations toy store. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
Marilyn Wiedell shops at Explorations toy store for gifts for her grandchildren who live in Australia. The downtown store specializes in learning and nonviolent toys. (Steve Kuchera / / 6
Zephyr Losh-Ryan makes use of one of the play stations at the downtown Explorations store. (Steve Kuchera / / 6

After 30 years in downtown Duluth, Explorations toy store is moving to the Miller Hill Mall area.

Owner Ken Weyenberg said declining sales, insufficient parking and an ongoing problem of people loitering outside near his store contributed to the decision to leave downtown.

"We've been thinking about it for a long time," he said. "It's something we've been pressed to do from a financial view, with sales declining. Some of the financial experts we've asked have suggested finding a better location."

The store, specializing in learning and nonviolent toys, will move to 2322 Mountain Shadow Dr. in the Village Square Mall, behind Bridgeman's Restaurant.

They're aiming to move in late March and open at their new location around April 1.

"We've owned the business for eight years, and gone through ups and downs in the economy," Weyenberg explained. "We have not been able to grow our business because of our location. We're hoping to get better access and better parking for our store. People can park outside and feel safe coming to the area and to our store."

The news of a longtime downtown fixture leaving has tempered the positive news of new downtown stores and businesses and efforts to revitalize downtown.

"Obviously, it's disappointing to see them go," said Kristi Stokes, president of the Greater Downtown Council. "They have been an integral part of our retail downtown. We have seen them as a true asset and a destination for many. We will miss them. But it's a business decision that they had to make. We wish them well."

Besides having only one parking spot in front of his store on Superior Street, Weyenberg said downtown's one-way streets discourage people from coming downtown. And, he said, his business has been hurt by a perception that walking outside the Holiday Inn, which is in the same building, is unsafe.

"People block people, making comments," he said. "Some are young. They're people just hanging out with nothing better to do. People have to walk through their smoke, I spend a lot of time in the summer out there asking people not to hang out, smoking."

Stokes said she won't refute his reasons for moving. But she noted that parking is available on the avenue and across the street.

"There's plentiful parking around the area, just not directly in front of that store," she said.

Calls last week to the property manager, Barb Perrella of First Properties, to learn what was planned for the approximately 6,000-square-

foot storefront weren't returned.

Shoppers' reaction mixed

On Wednesday, while her three children busied themselves in the store's play area, Erin Palmer talked about its upcoming move out of downtown.

"I'm a little bit disappointed," she said. "This is convenient for me. But I know that's not the case for everyone."

The move to the Miller Hill area, however, won't keep her from continuing to frequent the store.

"I get all of our toys here for birthday parties and other gifts," Palmer said. "They have good gifts, and it's convenient."

Moreover, Explorations will wrap gifts for free for customers.

"And that will bring me in every time," she said.

The new location will be more convenient for Roberta Watsick, of Duluth, who goes to the mall area more than downtown.

"But," she quickly added, "it is too bad for downtown."

She's been shopping at Explorations since her children -- now in their 30s -- were little.

"Now I'm buying things for my grandchildren," she said.

She likes the store's selection of toys, which, she said, are educational, durable and range in price. On Wednesday, she was shopping for children's party favors, which she always gets there.

Most of the time, parking isn't a problem for her. She usually finds parking on Second Avenue West, which runs along one side of the corner store.

Weyenberg said the majority of the store's customers are fine with the move.

"They're excited about it; they think it's wonderful," he said. "Some say they work downtown and are sad about it. But the majority have said they will frequent our store more in the new location."

Higher visibility sought

Since opening 30 years ago in the skywalk, Explorations has had three owners and three locations. It's been at its current site for 18 years, and owned by Weyenberg and his wife, Judy, the last eight.

Once they decided to move the business, they looked for a site along Central Entrance and just past the mall. That included Burning Tree Plaza, which lacked the visibility they sought, and Miller Hill Mall, which was too expensive.

But the space at Village Square, which is similar in size to their current store, seemed right.

"It you walk into that location, it's more open, and the ceilings are higher," Weyenberg said. "It's more square than rectangle, so it appears to be more space. It has more and bigger windows. It's a little brighter and wider and newer looking."

It formerly was occupied by Collector's Connection, which moved to smaller space in the mall.

"It will cost us a little bit more, but we anticipate the sales will happen," Weyenberg said.

They applied for and got a loan from the Entrepreneur's Fund to help pay for the remodeling, new store sign, new shelving and a better service counter.

Much remains to be done before the move, including getting the architect's plan, finalizing the construction costs, closing on the loan and getting the required city permits for the renovations.

Ultimately, Weyenberg expects the new location will give the store the visibility and accessibility needed to boost sales.

"We get people asking all the time, 'Is this a new store?" he said. "Even people who have lived in Duluth for years have come in and asked that."