With reports of record employment and a booming economy, there’s a fair amount of vacant retail space at Kent Plaza and Washington Square shopping centers in Chestertown.

Most recently, Plaza Tapatia at Kent Plaza shut its doors suddenly on Oct. 31. The chain still operates other locations on the Eastern Shore.

John Peters, Director of Construction and Facility Maintenance for Cordish Companies, which owns Kent Plaza, said discussions were ongoing with some national chains to lease the Plaza Tapatia location, which at one time was a Pizza Hut.

“It will not be a Chick-Fil-A,” Peters said of rumors floating around on Facebook. “But we are talking to national chains.”

The record job growth and a slight uptick in wages of late have not reduced store vacancies at the two major shopping centers. One retailer said a stagnant population and nominal wage growth is making it harder for retailers to survive.

“The rents are simply too much [and] the traffic isn’t high enough to make the rent worth it,” said an uptown retailer who asked to remain anonymous.  “Either we need more people or the rents need to come down.”

Kent County Economic Development Director Jamie Williams said online shopping has taken a bite out of local retailers’ income.

“The current retail situation is not unique to Kent County or rural communities,” she said.  “Retail is changing, approximately 15% of all retail is online and that number is expected to increase.  Attraction is difficult in Kent County, retailers want to know the population, number of households, and traffic counts.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, average weekly wages in Kent increased by $29 over 2018, from $753 to $782–still well below the national average of $1,095 and the state average of $1,178. The rise in the Consumer Price Index of 2% took roughly $16 from the $29 increase.

Kent ranks sixth-lowest in the state for average weekly wages, but things are progressing on the wage front, Williams said.

“Kent County’s average weekly wage ranked number 1 in a one-year change in percentage growth from 2017 to 2018, and number 10 in the 5-Year change in percentage growth,” she said. “The focus has been the attraction of high paying jobs with low environmental impacts.”

“Our population needs to grow to sustain our current retail businesses and to attract new retailers,” she said.  “Kent’s population has been slowing declining and is projected to decline for the next 5 years by 2%–compared to Queen Anne’s at a 3% increase and Cecil at a 1% increase.”

She said the three counties of Delaware are expected to grow by 14%.

Currently, there are store seven vacancies at Kent Plaza and three at Washington Square.

The Rite Aid at Kent Plaza closed this year, a year after the drug retailer announced it was merging with Walgreens. There’s a handful of other vacant spaces at Kent Plaza, including the Olympia Sports Shop, which also closed its door this year.

The King Buffet at Washington Square has been vacant for three years, and an adjacent retail space is also empty.

The former Luisa’s location at Washington Square has been empty since the restaurant opened its new location in 2015 at 849 Washington Avenue, the former Village Bakery & Café.

And the old Towne Stationers location remains vacant after closing this summer.