Without notifying or consulting city officials, a Chicago-based firm has quietly begun publicizing plans to open in 1982 a new south Santa Fe shopping center almost twice as large as any located here now, and to anchor that center with a new Sears store and a Dillard’s department store.

As the only department store and the biggest retailer left in the Plaza area after JC Penny relocated to a shopping center a few years ago, Sears has been considered crucial to the vitality of the city’s downtown. But chronic problems such as parking and little expansion room have caused increasing speculation that Sears might abandon the Lincoln Avenue location it has occupied for about 30 years.

When informed on Tuesday of the proposed new center and the possible Sears relocation, other downtown merchants expressed sentiments ranging from dismay to optimism, and elected city officials voiced reactions ranging from surprise to anger to outright opposition.

"I see it as an instantaneous, immediate threat to the downtown," said City Councilor Dora Battle. "I for one am willing to try to get Sears to stay."

"That's the last thing this town needs," said Councilor Mike Runnels. "How can they do that when we already have shopping centers out the wazoo?" And any new shopping center in Santa Fe, added Mayor Art Trujillo, "cannot be in competition with the downtown."

"If it was," he continued, "there would be serious problems. It could come to a showdown..."

Robert Feeny, manager of the Sears store in Santa Fe, was out of town on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment. The assistant store manager, Dennis Smith, said, "I don't have any idea" whether Sears had plans to open a shopping center store here. "Local management never knows about these things until one day before the newspapers get the announcement," Smith said. "Our real estate department calls us and says, 'Come pick us up at the airport; we have an announcement to make.'"

Battle, a colleague of Runnels on the council, declared. "I am opposed to a new shopping center of any kind. I can't sit here and talk about the deterioration and the demise of the downtown on one hand and support a new shopping center on the other. If Sears goes, we might as well say, 'That's it for the downtown. It's going to be cutesy-poo shops from now on.'"

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