For decades, Modesto’s Century Center offered many things to many people. At the corner of Oakdale Road and Orangeburg Avenue, it was a neighborhood shopping center with a Raley’s, restaurants, shops, banks and more.
It had a major department store in Gottschalks, which kept expanding and became one of the chain’s top-producing stores year in and year out.
“People came from all over the place to shop there,” said Terry Wiggs, owner of jewelry store Terry’s Touch of Gold, a Century Center tenant since 1980.
But in 2009, the entire Gottschalks chain closed, leaving 90,000 square feet of emptiness in the center. Three years later, Raley’s closed its store there to open a state-of-the art supermarket in Village I.
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The closures left longtime tenants to fend for themselves without the benefit of the foot traffic brought by the big anchor stores. Blockbuster closed and Starbucks recently moved to a location with a drive-thru at Oakdale Road and Scenic Drive. Raley’s has three years to go on its lease, spokeswoman Chelsea Minor confirmed.
“We’re exploring opportunities (for the site),” she said. “We have not made a decision at this time.”
It’s not uncommon for retailers to maintain control of properties they vacate, preventing competition from moving into the old one.
Regardless, the center is starting to show signs of new life, with the opening of Planet Fitness three years ago and Ciao Bella Ristorante in the past year. And by Christmas, Century Center could be truly vibrant again.
And on Monday – this is big, folks – MB2 Raceway owners Will Miller and Chris Brooks will pick up the keys to the old Gottschalks store. Within a couple of weeks, they will begin tearing out the remnants of the perfume counters and everything else from the department store era. They will transform the building into an indoor racetrack where families can race electric go-karts; play arcade games; hold birthday parties, team-building and other events; or raise funds for nonprofits and other groups.
What this represents is a new kind of use for the traditional department store space even though the Gottschalks store there defied the mall store stereotype. MB2 converted the old Gottschalks in the Clovis mall into a track, and it has been hugely successful, MB2 marketing director Gary Custer told me. In fact, he said, the family entertainment facility has led to new businesses, including restaurants, moving into the area around the mall, and created more foot traffic for existing businesses.
“Everything’s picked up,” he said. The company also operates indoor tracks in Sylmar and Thousand Oaks in California, and in Des Moines, Iowa.
In Modesto, where the company has joined the Chamber of Commerce, it will take up 53,000 square feet in the old Gottschalks store. The electric-powered go-karts can hit speeds beyond 40 mph, Brooks told me, and the clientele ranges from kids 7 years old to kids in their mid-60s.
Also, a South Bay retailer of tea products, including brewed teas and smoothies, is rumored to be interested in moving into the space Starbucks recently vacated.
Indeed, the center will have a different atmosphere. On Thursday, longtime Modestan Richard Burger greeted another longtime Modestan, Rick LaCross, in front of Planet Fitness. Both men have connections to the center.
“I worked at both,” Burger said. “Raley’s in the 1980s and Gottschalks in 2000 or so. I loved Century Center back in the day. Torii (Japanese Restaurant) for sushi, Donoby’s for a drink, shop at Gottschalks. And the train guy would run the kids around at Christmas.”
Torii and Donoby’s are still in business.
LaCross owned a gym called Club Super Fit in the center from 1987 until 2002.
“I closed it when In-Shape came to town,” he said. “Gottschalks then took over and made it its home store.”
After Gottschalks closed, Planet Fitness moved into the home store space. LaCross is now a customer, working out there daily.
Across the way on the south side, Jeannette Nordes sat with her 9-year-old son, Jacob, and 13-year-old daughter, McKenzie, outside the Ice Cream Co., a shop that endured a brief closure, an ownership change and remodeling in the post-Gottschalks and Raley’s era.
“We were talking about how much we miss the Raley’s,” Nordes said. “I used to work down the street and came over here a lot. It seems so quiet now. And we’ll see people sleeping under the overhangs once in a while.”
Indeed, reports of crime, which dropped along with the number of people visiting the center after Raley’s left three years ago, have begun to rise again, according to Modesto police. Calls about suspicious activity and auto burglaries are up the past two years.
A couple of doors down from the ice cream shop, jeweler Wiggs keeps a keen eye on what’s happening in the center. He knew about the impending arrival of MB2 Raceway, and the interest by the tea shop.
The lack of foot traffic “has hurt greatly,” said Wiggs, who recently decided to sign a new lease and stay rather than incur the costs of moving to new storefront in another part of town. “It hurt a lot when Gottschalks went out.”
Now, he’s looking forward to the indoor racetrack coming in, bringing people back to Century Center. New life, new business, new energy.