As the youngest child of five and the only girl in the family, Laurie Harwood remembers her mother going through stacks of pants at Rock Hills downtown Belk department store to find the right sizes for the boys.
She remembers when Belk moved to the Rock Hill Mall on Cherry Road and then the Galleria. Each time Belk moved, Harwood followed.
So when Belk celebrated its official reopening after a $5.5 million expansion and renovation, Harwood was one of the first people in line, arriving around 8 a.m. for the 9:30 grand opening Wednesday.
Belk, its the place you come for your first dress and shoes, then your wedding china. ... It just feels like home, she said.
That enthusiasm was reflected Wednesday not only in the long line of people waiting for the reopening and the chance for gifts cards worth from $5 to $500, but in the excitement of staff members who have endured nine months of renovations.
Store manager Deb Niekamp praised everyone for showing patience during the changes.
This is a Cinderella store, Niekamp said. It was 24 years old, and we now turned it into a gem. This is now Cinderella with a modern southern twist.
The first change was expanding the store by 20,000 square feet. In addition to the space, Belk closed off two entrances and created a main entrance that directs shoppers to the cosmetic and jewelry counters.
The additional space allowed Belk to expand its merchandise, tripling the space allotted to womens shoes and adding or expanding name brands such as Coach, Calvin Klein, Tahari, Lucky Brand, Ralph Lauren Polo, Made by Cam Newton and Under Armour.
Our customers have had a profound response, Niekamp said. They walk around in amazement, and they no longer have to travel to the Pineville or SouthPark store.
Bill Roberts, division chairman of Belk, said the Galleria store is now a core store with the higher level of merchandise customers have come to expect from Belk.
With the expanded space comes an expanded sales staff. Niekamp said she has hired 25 full-time workers, with another 25 workers likely for the holiday season.
For the Rock Hill Galleria, it is the second major expansion of anchor stores.
In September 2012, J.C. Penney completed an expansion that doubled its sales space, allowing it to add new merchandise and a Sephora cosmetics store. The J.C. Penney store recently added a Disney shop, featuring toys, collectibles and childrens apparel showcasing Disney characters.
Revolutions, an entertainment venue, is under construction at the mall, too. The $7 million renovation will turn a former retail space into a restaurant, sports bar, bowling alley and game emporium.
While most Wednesday shoppers at Belk were women, several men tagged along with their wives, occasionally breaking free to check out the expanded mens section.
I love it, said Johnny Alford, as he looked over the racks of sports coats for hidden bargains. The former supervisor at the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. plant said he will no longer have to drive to Pineville to shop. We can drive the other way, said the Fort Mill resident.
Ray Long was one of the few men who came to shop by himself. The part-time Rock Hill city judge and pastor of Union Baptist church won a $50 gift card. He used the card to buy a $40 tie to add to his collection of about 200.
Long said he hopes the expanded Belk will bring more customers to the mall, which has struggled over the years. I walk the mall a lot. Its sad to see the stores closed up. I hope this helps the mall take on a new life.
Don Worthington • 803-329-4066