It was like "Black Friday" in Lehigh last week when Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida opened its newest and largest store in Southwest Florida right here in Lehigh Acres. Like Black Friday, visitors crowded the front entrance and when the store officially opened at 9 a.m., they rushed in and grabbed carts and started shopping. Those who came early peeked through the large plate glass windows to see the large interior.
It was a good sight for store manager Tilson Cruze of Lehigh, who said getting the store opened had gone well and his staff of 31 employees are from Lehigh.
The new Goodwill store began construction last year and opened Jan. 17.
The new Goodwill store in Lehigh is at 2825 Lee Blvd.
The parking lot holds 115 parking spaces, but shoppers were parking on the grass and on the street alongside of the new Goodwill store.
The store is likely the second or third largest retail store in Lehigh if you count the Super Walmart as the largest and then Beall's Outlet as the second largest.
Before the doors opened, an eager crowd watched ceremonies near the front entrance. They listened to Goodwill officials, including Rick Evanchyk, Goodwill's chief operating officer, Robert Randall, vice president of operations, and Tony Petraglia, district director. Then store manager Cruze gave a warm welcome and the crowds cheered.
Then they all gathered together and cut ribbons officially opening the store.
Residents of Lehigh have been driving up and down Lee Boulevard for several months during the construction phase. Goodwill moved from its previous much smaller store just down Lee Blvd., which was located in a strip shopping center.
The new store is three times larger than the older store. Officials said it took nine days for the employees to staff the store.
"Are you guys ready?" shouted Rick Evanchyk, the COO of Goodwill and the large crowd of 100 or more applauded and screamed yes.
The store, which is located at 2825 Lee Blvd., is the largest Goodwill store in the chain of retail stores. Lehigh's Goodwill is store No. 29, the group in front was told.
Store hours for the Lehigh Goodwill are from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday to Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.
Evanchyk said the next store to open is in Port Charlotte.
The store has more than 13,000 square feet of retail space while the previous store in Lehigh only offered about 3,000 square feet.
Officials said the store will also have a Job-Link Center, which will open at a later date. It will assist people with everything from resume creation to job placement.
Known officially as the Goodwill Retail & Donation Center, it also features a drive-up donation drop-off, making giving to the organization more convenient.
"We wanted this location to really feature 'green initiatives' both inside and out," said Jennifer Nelson, Goodwill's senior director of sustainability.
She said the store has low flow toilets that will save a total of around 25,000 gallons of water every year.
"We installed occupancy sensors for lighting; we used native plants to indigenous to Florida for landscape and are utilizing rain collection barrels to irrigate the landscaping," she said.
Those who attended the grand opening last Friday and over the weekend had a chance to enter a contest to win an iPod Nano. Three winners will be chosen.
Nelson said Goodwill provides life-changing opportunities to people with disabilities and disadvantages.
Revenue generated at Goodwill's now 29 retail and donation center supports Job-Link centers, income-sensitive housing for senior citizens and people with disabilities, the SWFL MicroEnterprise project, the LIFE Academy charter school and other programs.
The Lehigh store is designed for shoppers to get around easily. There are several aisles filled with clothes for men, women and children. There are all types of other things in the store for sale, too, including a few new items, things that may have been returned to a major store. One was a nice outside grille and another was a set of outside furniture with cushions.
In addition, the back shelves of the store and lined with all types of gadgets from kitchen items, fans, tools, you name it.
Local residents are encouraged to bring used items to the store as a donation.
Officials said they like to refer to acceptable donated items as "gently used" articles.
Prices on the racks are low as are prices on everything in the store.
One man dashed in and cut his way through the large crowd to grab one of two fans that was for sale. It looked like new as he rushed through the cashier check-out line and to his car.
There are plenty of shopping carts and the front has a line of checkout cashiers who will ring up your order like in any other large retail store.
Within the hour after opening, throngs of people had walked through the front entrance and the celebration kept the parking lot busy all weekend long.
The site on which Goodwill has built its newest store was one of the early realty firm sites with several homes that years ago were shown as model homes. They were demolished to make room for the new store.
The grand opening Friday was probably one of the largest shopper attended events in Lehigh's history. It was a big event with TV cameras recording the ceremonies.