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(Janesville, WI) By Jim Leute, Gazette

When Steve Yeko Sr. first got into the jewelry business, the real estate mantra of “location, location, location” could be translated into a single word: mall.

“It was all about the mall,” said Yeko, who in 1986 opened The Diamond Center at the Janesville Mall with his wife, Heidi.

“Malls were the place to be for jewelry stores.”

Much has changed, and The Diamond Center will change addresses early next year when it leaves its home of 28 years for a freestanding store farther down Milton Avenue.

The Yekos plan to break ground as early as July on an 8,900-square-foot building on an outlot parcel near Menards and Arby's.

The Diamond Center will occupy the majority of the building, and the remaining space will be leased to one or two tenants.

“This is going to be a gorgeous building,” said Barry Badertscher of Badertscher Commercial Real Estate in Janesville, who helped the Yekos settle on the site near Interstate 90/39.

“It will easily be the best looking building on I-90 in Janesville, and it will be a great billboard for the city.”

Gale Price, the city's manager of building and development services, is even more effusive.

“I've been talking this up for a week and half since getting the drawings,” Price said. “It will be a showcase architectural piece for this community.

“It's good-sized, it's unique and it will be a great addition to that end of Milton Avenue.”

The building designed by Angus Young Associates in Janesville will feature extensive glasswork, primarily on the two-story section that will house The Diamond Center. Sales will be on the first floor, with offices and a mezzanine on the 2,900-square-foot second floor.

Yeko said The Diamond Center, which also has a store in Madison, has been on a series of one-year leases at the Janesville Mall.

Yeko's son Steve Jr. and his wife, Holly, also are involved in managing the company that employs about 35 people at its two locations.

“We've been thinking about doing this for some time,” he said. “We feel that the time is right, and we found a great location.”

Badertscher said that in trying to help the Yekos find a new site, he visited with nearly every property owner on Milton Avenue.

“Nobody wanted to sell, and that's a very good sign for Janesville,” he said.

In the last 18 months, Janesville's commercial real estate market has improved, driven in large part by a retail sector punctuated with outlot growth along the Milton Avenue corridor. City officials, brokers and developers attribute that to a shift in retail thinking.

More and more retailers want smaller stores that their customers can easily find and access.

While Yeko's new store will be about the same size as its mall store, he subscribes to the outlot approach.

“We're more of a destination store,” he said. “People want to drive up, park and do their shopping without having to wander through a mall to find us.”

In addition, there's a belief among some in the industry that malls have been overrun with cookie-cutter jewelry stores that rotate through leases and leave an impression of diminished quality.

Yeko is quick to say his store has done quite well in its nearly three decades at the mall. The mall, he said, also benefited from The Diamond Center, one of its largest non-anchor stores and easily one of the mall's top performers in sales per square foot.

“It's definitely been a win-win for both of us,” he said.

Julie Cubbage, the mall's general manager, said she would be sorry to lose The Diamond Center.

“They are a long-time Janesville business and have developed a large customer base who I'm sure will continue to support a local jeweler as reputable as The Diamond Center,” she said. “I wish them success in their new location and we will miss them.”

Cubbage said the mall, which is owned by CBL Properties, is always working to fill vacant spaces. She said she prefers to look at vacancies as opportunities rather than problems.

The pending loss of The Diamond Center and the loss earlier this month of long-time anchor JCPenney are examples, she said.

It “brings us the opportunity to make some changes,” she said. “I cannot release names at this time, but CBL is currently negotiating to bring several new retailers to the market. These new retailers will not only create a new landscape for the mall, they will also fill a void.”

Yeko said The Diamond Center move will allow the store to upgrade equipment, create an environment that's better for customers and set its own hours.

It also will include more visual displays and technologies to help customers with their jewelry decisions.

“We've listened to what our customers want, and they've really helped us reach this decision,” Yeko said. “This is really a good time to do this.

“Steve and Holly are the second generation, and they've been heavily involved. This is a great opportunity for the second generation of our family in this business.”

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