Omaha Store To Get Back To Business After Shooting

Wednesday, December 19th 2007, 7:26 am
By: News On 6

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) _ Enticing shoppers back into the department store where the deadliest mall shooting in U.S. history took place is the delicate task now facing Von Maur employees.

The apparel store decided to reopen its Omaha location on Thursday _ 15 days after a 19-year-old gunman fatally wounded eight people and killed himself at one of its outlets in the Westroads Mall.

Many customers and employees say they're ready, but company officials know that some may question the decision. ``There's no perfect answer in a situation like this, and there is no roadmap,'' said Von Maur spokeswoman Megan Hakes.

Customer Rachael Henderson, who was at the mall when the shooting happened, plans to go to the store's reopening, but just for a quick trip to exchange a purse and perhaps visit her uncle, who works there.

``I'm going to go to the first floor to the purses, and then if my uncle is working I'll go up to the second floor,'' said Henderson, 33. ``I don't know about the third floor.''

Most of the people Robert Hawkins shot with an AK-47 on Dec. 5 were on the third floor of the store. Von Maur officials said that floor would be reopen along with the rest of the store.

The shooting and resulting closings of Westroads and Von Maur happened at the height of the holiday shopping season. But Hakes said the shooting's effects on profits were the ``furthest thing from our minds.''

Crisis communications expert Joe Marconi said Von Maur should acknowledge what happened in the store _ as the company plans to do with a brief ceremony before opening _ but shouldn't dwell on it.

``Let's not pretend it didn't happen, but let's also go on living our lives for the living,'' said Marconi, who wrote ``Crisis Marketing: When Bad Things Happen to Good Companies.''

Westroads Mall reopened Dec. 8 and mall manager Jim Sadler said the number of shoppers in the days since has been similar to last year's holiday rush.

Sadler said Westroads worked closely with Omaha police and city officials to determine when it could reopen. He said the mall wanted to reopen as soon as possible to allow the more than 140 stores and thousands of employees to return to business.

Von Maur is planning a permanent memorial but has not decided what form it will take. The department store, which paid its workers during the closure, has made counseling available to employees.

Von Maur customer Carole Christ has been e-mailing friends, encouraging them to go to the store 15 minutes before it opens Thursday to show support. ``I think sometimes you have to face the demon. We'll all have thoughts when we go,'' Christ said.

Von Maur is based in Davenport, Iowa, and it has 22 stores in Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio. Westroads is owned by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which owns, develops or operates malls in 44 states.

Belene Esaw-Kagbara, a 31-year-old employee who had been pressing a suit on the store's first floor when the shootings began, plans to go back to work Thursday, but isn't sure how she'll feel.

``I prayed at home and I had some counseling from my pastor,'' she said. ``I don't know, I'll be all right.''