Rebuilt after tornado, Sanford Lowe's opens today

Staff WriterSeptember 8, 2011 

For the past three weeks, Lowe's employees in Sanford have been working 12-hour days to set up their new home. Today they roll out the welcome mat.

The Sanford Lowe's re-opens this morning, less than five months after being razed by one of eight tornadoes that ripped through the region in April. It's another sign of recovery in the Lee County community, where two people died as a result of the tornado that left a wide swath of destruction.

The new building, which cost $10 million, is about 2,000 square feet bigger than the previous store and will feature a home garden center, state-of-the-art displays and the newest technology, manager Mike Hollowell said.

"The store is, from top to bottom, just awesome," said Hollowell, who has been with the Mooresville-based home improvement chain for about 10 years and worked in the Sanford store for more than two years.

Hollowell said his favorite part of the store is the memorabilia salvaged from the debris that now decorates the new building. A framed American flag recovered from the rubble hangs over the store's exit, and a slab of the building's old floor sits in the parking lot with a marker describing the day the tornado tore through town.

"You get a really good feeling as you walk in seeing that kind of stuff," Hollowell said. "For me, it's a tremendous feeling."

Most of the store's 160 employees, who were all transferred to surrounding stores during construction in Sanford, have come back to work. There are about 25 open positions that the store will fill in the coming days, said Jaclyn Pardini, a Lowe's spokeswoman.

An early look

Hollowell said keeping employees motivated during the long days has been the biggest challenge of the five-month reconstruction. As a reward, the store gave employees' family members a sneak preview of the building Wednesday night, offering them dinner and a chance to shop.

"Every employee in here has definitely got a piece of themselves in this building," Hollowell said. "You would think after working all those hours they would be tired, but the employees know what it's going to take to get this place back to where it was."

Pardini said the Sanford store was the only Lowe's store lost to a natural disaster. A store in Albany, Ga., was destroyed after a pallet of pool chlorinating product caught fire - 15 years to the day before the tornado struck Sanford.

A tax hit

Sanford Mayor Cornelia Olive said residents didn't realize how much they frequented the Lowe's until they lost it. With residents forced to travel to stores in Pittsboro or Southern Pines to buy what they needed, Olive said the decrease in sales tax revenue has been the city's biggest challenge in the months since the tornado.

"We're excited to have that slice back, and we have our workers coming back home," Olive said. "It's the phoenix rising from the ashes. It's evidence proof that we're on the road to recovery."

And though the tornado may have destroyed much in Sanford, it left a lesson or two behind.

"I've begun to pay a bit more attention to the weather," said assistant general manager Bobby Gibson, who was in the building when the tornado hit and helped get employees and shoppers to the back of the building before it struck. "Of course you also tend to focus on your people a little bit more, make sure the people around me are taken care of."

tstilwell@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4669

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