Findlay mall facing stiff competition

VONN BOWERS, left, manager of the Findlay Village Mall, admits that bigger malls in Toledo and Columbus draw shoppers from Findlay, and present a formidable challenge. But Bowers is optimistic the Findlay mall will survive and thrive. A mall walkers group, at right, was taking a break when this photo was taken. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

VONN BOWERS, left, manager of the Findlay Village Mall, admits that bigger malls in Toledo and Columbus draw shoppers from Findlay, and present a formidable challenge. But Bowers is optimistic the Findlay mall will survive and thrive. A mall walkers group, at right, was taking a break when this photo was taken. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By LOU WILIN
STAFF WRITER
Findlay Village Mall appears to be teetering on the brink.
Its occupancy rate is lower than average. Its largest anchor store closed this year. In a few months, another big retailer will move across the street.
On a recent afternoon, a store manager nodded toward the empty mall: “If you spend the day out here, this is what you’ll see.”
But the mall still offers 42 retail or service businesses. A big new tenant is said to be on the way, and a new church within the mall is expected to generate pedestrian traffic.
“We’re not going anywhere. We’ve got the things that you need,” said mall Manager Vonn Bowers.
The problem for this mall is competitors in the Toledo area and Columbus arguably have more of what people need and want.
Counting the Best Buy store, just under 80 percent of the mall’s 550,000 square feet is occupied, Bowers said.
“Anything under 80 percent, you want to look at and figure out what’s going on… figure out how they can up that a little bit,” said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers in New York.
Nationally, mall occupancy rates are about 93 percent, Tron said.
“You want to be in the 90 percent occupied range for it to be cash-flowing,” said Mark Stapp, executive director of the master of real estate development program at Arizona State University.
But occupancy rates can be deceiving because the amount of the rent affects the occupancy rate, Stapp said.
Bowers called Findlay Village Mall’s rental rates “very reasonable.”
Findlay Village Mall lost its biggest anchor store, at 95,000 square feet, when Sears left in April. Its lease had expired.
Bowers said the loss of Sears was mostly an image problem for the mall. She pooh-poohed its economic effect, saying Sears drew little traffic until it started its liquidation sale. At least one mall store manager shared that view.
Bowers said she expects soon to announce a new tenant for the former Sears space.
In addition, CedarCreek Church, a nondenominational Christian church based in Perrysburg, will open its fifth location at the former Carmike Cinemas at the mall on Sept. 20. It will have services on Saturdays and Sundays and groups meeting during the week in the 22,000-square-foot space.
It will certainly bring traffic to the mall. At least 300 people are expected to worship there weekly, said Mike Sell, CedarCreek’s Findlay lead pastor.
“We care a lot about the mall. We care a lot about the retailers in there and their businesses,” Sell said.
“We know we can have a great relationship with this community within the mall, to be bringing people here that maybe wouldn’t normally be coming this way and maybe leaving their revenues at the mall afterward or before,” Sell said.
While a new tenant may be coming, and the church is about to open, a large retailer is going.
After March, Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft will vacate its 15,000-square-foot space and move to 21,000 square feet across the street. It will spend $325,000 to ready the space at the former Home Depot store.
Besides Jo-Ann Fabric, Findlay Village Mall has 41 retail or service businesses, including remaining anchors Elder-Beerman, at 73,000 square feet; JC Penney, 62,000 square feet; Dunham’s Sports, 30,000 square feet; and T.J. Maxx, nearly 30,000 square feet.
The mall claims six dining businesses. Two of those are full restaurants which can be accessed from the mall. Two others are in buildings nearby.
Still, some store managers, speaking on condition of anonymity, are grumbling that the mall resembles a morgue at times and needs more promotion.
“It’s kind of that feeling, you know, that closing feeling,” said another store manager.
But she has worked at stores at other malls that have closed, and Findlay’s mall is in better shape, than, say, Southwyck in Toledo when it closed in 2008.
“It’s got more popular stores in this mall,” she said. “It has the stores kids like to shop at.”
Mall management should be working harder to draw shoppers, and reduce rents if it wants to attract stores and prevent an exodus, store managers said.
“They don’t cut us any slack,” one manager complained. “There hasn’t been a whole lot done to promote the mall, honestly.”
“What do you have to offer to bring people in?” said another store manager. “We lost the movie theater. You don’t have a food court. We lost a big anchor.”
Bowers expressed surprise that store managers would complain about rents because most don’t know what their rates are. That detail is handled by corporate offices elsewhere, she said.
“I can tell you, having worked at other centers, our rates are very reasonable,” she said.
Typically, stores are locked into leases for five or 10 years, she said. Typically, they are charged a minimum rate. They are charged more if their sales exceed a threshold.
The mall usually does not modify a store’s rates. However, it did give stores a break during the 2008-2009 recession, Bowers said.
More lasting than the recession, however, is the threat from competing malls in Toledo, Lima and Columbus. If Findlay Mall management expects to keep stores and enlist new ones, it needs to lower rates, said a third store manager.
“This is a smaller city and you’ve got (shopping centers) 30 minutes either way. It’s kind of hard to bring business in when customers can go to those places instead of here,” he said.
“If you’re not willing to work with stores to bring them in, put them in all of these empty spaces … who is going to come to a place where they have only got seven, 10 places to shop when you can go 30 minutes away and go to a mall that’s got 30, 40?”
Bowers agrees bigger malls elsewhere draw shoppers from Findlay. People pressed for time, wanting to be more efficient, frequently take off a day with the family to shop at a bigger mall, she said.
“They tend to make it more of a big adventure,” Bowers said.
The competition in Toledo and Columbus dwarfs Findlay Village Mall’s 42 retail/service businesses and six dining establishments, and appears to cater to more affluent shoppers:
• Franklin Park, Toledo, has 132 retail/service businesses, 19 dining businesses and 15 kiosks, some of which serve food and beverages. It has a play area with animal characters where children can climb equipment and put together large puzzles. A train offers rides. Franklin Park Mall is 1.3 million square feet, not including its movie theaters.
• Polaris Fashion Place, Columbus, has 147 retail/service businesses and 21 dining businesses occupying 1.5 million square feet.
Three other regional shopping centers are not traditional indoor malls, but are popular:
• The Town Center at Levis Commons, in Perrysburg, has 70 retail/service businesses and 15 dining businesses, totaling 240,000 square feet. It also has movie theaters, apartments and townhouses; a retirement and assisted living community; a Hilton Garden Inn, medical offices and a veterinary clinic.
• The Shops at Fallen Timbers, in Maumee, has 44 retail/service businesses, movie theaters, seven dining businesses, physicians offices and a hotel nearby, totaling 640,000 square feet.
• Easton Town Center in Columbus has 157 retail/service businesses, 53 dining businesses, and movie theaters. The retail and restaurants total 1.2 million square feet. Offices, cinemas, health and fitness businesses add 500,000 square feet.
While Findlay Village Mall is small by comparison, it still outshines other area malls. At Tiffin Mall one day last week, the lights were on, Muzak played, but few shoppers were in the mall.
Tiffin Mall could claim perhaps 60 to 70 percent occupancy, but that would be counting some part-time tenants, like one offering bingo, and the Tiffin Wrestling Club. Other spaces are occupied by the American Red Cross chapter and a dance studio, which were not open for business at midday one recent day.
Tiffin Mall does have movie theaters, which were not included in the occupancy estimate.
Tiffin Mall has a leaky roof and store managers said they have been unable to get the mall to fix it. A worker at one store nodded to a water-stained ceiling.
“Water leakage coming through the roof that they don’t take care of… We’re trying to get somebody out here to fix (it),” the store worker said.
Water stains are “all over the place. We change those ceiling tiles regularly. We can’t get anybody here to fix the roof.”
“It’s been an ongoing issue, trying to get them to fix (the roof),” said the manager of another store. “The health of the mall is terrible. Unfortunately, the landlord doesn’t keep up … maintenance-wise.”
Tiffin Mall does not have a manager on-site. It reportedly has three maintenance workers. The head maintenance worker declined to answer any questions, including who owns the mall. He said he does not know. The mall’s website does not disclose the owner’s identity.
Woodland Mall, in Bowling Green, could claim perhaps 70 percent occupancy, not counting movie theaters. But some of the counted tenants were not open in mid-afternoon one recent day.
They included a dance studio and two church-related tenants. An apparent discount store also was locked up and its lights turned off in mid-afternoon.
“It’s just been a downward spiral… I mean, they never get stores in here that people want. It’s become just like one big garage sale now … Like that store,” said a worker in one of the mall’s stores, gesturing toward a dark, locked-up store.
“It’s things that have already been used. There’s a couple of other stores that are doing that, too.”
“Nobody’s coming in. We just have only very few stores left,” said the manager of another store.
It appeared the only people at the mall were store and mall employees one recent afternoon.
“It’s shaky. It’s a little rocky, that’s for sure,” said the manager of a mall business. “Foot traffic is definitely not very great.”
Woodland Mall once brimmed with shoppers and stores. But all that withered in the 2008-2009 recession, said Michelle Barton, building manager. Woodland Mall has never been the same.
Big-box retailers, burned by the recession, have become more cautious, both Barton and Bowers said. They locate only where they know they will make the most profit.
In the big retailers’ eyes, Woodland Mall falls short on three counts: its size, and the size and income of its surrounding population, Barton said.
“They like malls to be over 320,000 square feet,” she said. “Ours is only 250,000 square feet.”
Bowers said Findlay Village Mall is running into similar challenges, even with its 550,000 square feet.
“What happened was, there was a lot of overbuilding. (Retail chains) had to make that determination when the money wasn’t there. It affected us as a smaller center,” she said.
“Sears closed 150 stores. (Findlay’s) just happened to be one of them.”
Bowers’ answer to the tougher environment is to get out the message that Findlay Village Mall has what people need.
“Part of my job in terms of marketing the center and trying to get events and things like that, is to get more community involvement and to let the public know that we’re here for you,” Bowers said.
The bigger the show, the bigger the draw. But even in offering traffic-inducing events, the mall runs into competition and difficulties.
The mall used to have craft shows, for example, Bowers said. But the company that organizes the spring and fall craft shows at the Hancock County Fairgrounds makes participants agree they will not exhibit at the mall, Bowers said.
A spokesperson for the company, Cloud Productions of Findlay, said its contracts forbid exhibitors from participating in other shows within a 25-mile radius for only three weeks before its shows.
The Findlay Village Mall’s owner, J.J. Gumberg of Pittsburgh, this year is investing nearly $250,000 in concrete and asphalt, new light poles in the parking lot and other building maintenance, Bowers said.
J.J. Gumberg referred all questions to Bowers.
“I know the mall is not going anyplace … I don’t have any concerns my job is going anywhere. I feel pretty comfortable about that,” Bowers said. “As long as they are putting money in, I’m not concerned … When you see that happening, that’s a good thing.”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin

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