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CEO: Online shopping doomed Gibraltar Trade Center

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

The rise of online shopping doomed the Gibraltar Trade Center in Mount Clemens, which is closing next month after decades in business, according to the company’s top official.

“The biggest factor when deciding to close was looking at market sales,” said President and CEO Bob Koester. “The impact of online sales on small brick-and-mortar businesses is substantial. Declining revenue and sales are forecast to continue to accelerate in the years to come.”

The longtime home of weekend bargain hunters announced the closure Sunday on the company’s website. The company said the 600,000-square-foot property had been sold and would close Aug. 27.

“There’s just no new business. Bottom line, it comes back to online. I believe the problem for the trade center is online sales like from Amazon. It has impacted the vendors and their sales,” Koester said.

The Mount Clemens site closure follows the shuttering of its Taylor location in November 2014 after 20 years at that location. The family owners said the Taylor site closed to make way for Menards, the Wisconsin-based home improvement chain.

News of the closure disappointed vendors and customers.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Harold Burns, who has operated Burneys Camouflage at the Mount Clemens center for 15 years. “I’d like to find a storefront near Detroit, because I see Detroit coming back. ... Most of my customers are from Detroit.”

Burns, who sells clothing, pins and patches, said he also plans to start a website, recognizing that shoppers are moving online — something that led to the trade center’s demise.

“Bob Koester made a business decision that was best for him,” Burns said. “I’ll survive. I’m from the old school. I won’t sit on the couch and cry about it.”

Customer Scott Almburg of Bloomfield Hills posted online: “Another victim of”

Customer Chris Thomas posted: “Taylor was always packed they should never have sold the land. I miss that place it was a big part of my teen years.”

When that Downriver location closed, some of the vendors said they were moving to the trade center building off Interstate 94 in Mount Clemens.

“I’ve had vendors, some as long as 35 years, and they’re retiring and no one is replacing them. There are no new vendors moving in and existing ones keep dropping,” Koester said.

Over the last few years, revenue has dwindled but attendance has not, he added.

“We had a rough number of 1 million people visit on average per year. That hasn’t changed much. It dropped by a little, 4 percent over the years,” Koester said.

Koester wouldn’t disclose the new owner of the property, but said the trade center’s iconic, derby-wearing “Big Man” sign will remain as a landmark.

“We have discussed the Big Man, one of our trademarks and they have agreed to keep him,” Koester said. “It’s really sad. We want to thank every customer, vendor and visitor. A sad day has arrived and we really felt we needed to do it.”

Gibraltar Gun and Knife Shows will continue to operate, the company said, as will the Gibraltar Rug & Furniture Outlet in Warren. In addition, three more rug and furniture outlets are planned throughout Metro Detroit.

The locations are yet to be determined, but Koester said he is working on leases and plans to open two sites before the year ends.

“The vendors are everything. Hopefully some open their own storefronts and some will learn how to operate online and survive in this new world,” Koester said.

The Gibraltar Trade Center has been owned and operated by the Koester family since its inception in 1980. Jim Koester was in the auction liquidation business; in 1980, he bought a 60,000-square-foot building in Gibraltar as a place to hold closeout auctions. Soon, the family started a weekend market.

By 1982, they had purchased the iconic 320,000-square-foot facility off Interstate 75 in Taylor and put in a much bigger weekend market. The bazaar-like venue became home to hundreds of vendors and soon became a shopping destination.

“It was my dad’s vision: We started the market (in Gibraltar) and it was doing quite well,” Koester said in 2014. “Then when my dad bought this in ’82 and we moved out here, it just exploded.”

By 2014, it was time to merge the two markets when Menards bought the Taylor site.

The center recently was in the news when Amor Ftouhi was charged in the stabbing of Flint airport officer Lt. Jeff Neville on June 22. Investigators said he attempted to buy a gun in the United States. The FBI would not say if the attempt was made in Macomb County, but the trade center issued a statement June 22.

“This is an active investigation by the FBI and Gibraltar Trade Center is cooperating completely,” according to the statement. “Any statements or details must come from the proper law enforcement officials.”

Koester said after 37 years, he is disappointed to close, but he looks forward to his son and daughter taking over the soon-to-come furniture outlets.

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Twitter: @SarahRahal_