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Shopping on Watt Avenue in North Highlands is getting better.

The Watt Towne Center, which has undergone a face-lift by a new owner, is signing retailers familiar and new, an upstream trend in a downturned economy.

An unnamed national retailer is negotiating for a 30,000-square-foot space, according to Don Gaube, owner of Alamo Group, which bought the center when it was nearly vacant. A Georgia-based discount clothing chain, Citi Trends, debuted Thursday in Northern California with a 12,000-square-foot store at the center.

The 170,000-square-foot shopping center at the corner of Watt and Elkhorn Boulevard is virtually all leased and is a key anchor for an effort by the county to revitalize the Watt Avenue corridor in North Highlands.

"If you have a retail presence, we know that helps attract people to the area and if you continue to improve the residential element of North Highlands, that will bring more and better retail," said Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson, who represents the area.

The county has already invested $7 million in upgrading the street and will add another $10 million along the street, he said.

An integral part of the strategy in North Highlands is concentrating commerce at the major intersections along Watt instead of sprawling it along the whole street front, Dickinson said.

The Alamo Group, which is based in Alamo, also owns a 100,000-square-foot center across the street from the Towne Center and has gotten county redevelopment money to upgrade it. A Ross Dress for Less will open in that center, which also has a Rite Aid.

"That whole intersection is changing," said Gaube.

The company has found steady success in buying existing shopping centers, remodeling them and relaunching them.

"There's not a lot of new construction going on," Gaube said.

He bought the Towne Center several years ago. After a makeover, he brought in dd's Discounts, an offshoot of Ross, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Anna's Linens, Dollar Tree and a small food store.

The center employs about 300 workers, Gaube said.

The latest addition, Citi Trends, is the third of five stores the company plans to open in California this year, said Bruce Smith, the company's chief financial officer. Two opened recently in Southern California. Smith declined to say where the other two will be located.

The store, which began just after World War II as Savannah Wholesale, then Allied Department Stores, offers urban fashion for the family at about 30 percent to 70 percent less than other retailers and sells national brands and private labels, Smith said. The company has 370 stores and will expand to 24 states this year with the opening of 45 stores, Smith said.

The foray into California is new ground for the company, whose primary presence has been in the Southeast.

"It's quite a jump from our existing markets," Smith said. "We'll see how those stores perform."

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