NILES, Ohio – Diversification of the tenant mix at Eastwood Mall and development of the sprawling mall complex began decades ago as the flagship property of the Cafaro Co. adapted to the changing marketplace.
The Cafaro Co. has “reinvested substantially millions and millions of dollars over the past 20 years in the Eastwood Complex,” says Anthony Cafaro Sr., consultant and retired president.
In the mid-1960s, Warren real estate broker Vic Natale brought the property where the mall stands to the attention of Cafaro’s father and company patriarch, the late William M. Cafaro.
Cafaro credits then-Niles Mayor Carmen DeChristofaro and his law director, Mitchell Shaker, for working to annex the property to the city, widening U.S. Route 422 and making other infrastructure improvements. ”Without their efforts, it wouldn’t have happened,” he says.
In 1969, when Eastwood Mall opened, the enclosed shopping center encompassed about 1.2 million square feet on land bordered by U.S. Route 422 and state Route 46 in Niles. The opening-day tenant mix featured local and national brands familiar to Mahoning Valley shoppers and diners of the day. Among them were Lustig’s, Strouss’ (now Macy’s), McKelvey’s, Sears, Cherry’s Top o’ the Mall, Hartzell’s, Rose & Sons, Montgomery Ward, WaldenBooks and Gray Drug.
The complex has since expanded to 3.3 million square feet and covers 182 acres extending north on Route 46, including the in-development Enterprise Park.
Accompanying the physical expansion has been a “major diversification of uses,” as Cafaro describes it.
The tenant mix has broadened from the blend of anchor retailers, small shops, restaurants and a Loew’s twin cinema that debuted some 53 years ago.
Today, Eastwood Mall Complex boasts a baseball stadium, a trampoline park, a 14-screen movie theater, several hotels, an event center and even a church. The Cafaro Co. itself relocated its corporate headquarters to the complex in 2016.
The strategy is one that “has been a long time in action here,” says Cafaro spokesman Joe Bell, moving away from the concept of what a shopping mall was in the 1960s into what it is in the 21st century.
“There’s a lot more in the way of services, entertainment, hospitality and lodging,” Bell says. “The best way of thinking about it is we’re looking to put together a mixture that really plays to the needs of everyday life of people in that community.”
Back when Eastwood and malls nationwide were being developed, 95% of the tenants were retail, according to Cafaro.
“Everybody had 11 shoe stores and stuff like that. Over the course of the years, things have changed,” Cafaro says.
Then, competition from the internet didn’t exist, which he estimates cut bricks-and-mortar sales by 10% or more. Retail chain behemoths such as Walmart, Sam’s Club and Target also didn’t exist.
And local market demographics changed over the half-century. In the late 1960s, when Eastwood, Southern Park and Shenango Valley malls were being developed, the total trade area contained more than 600,000 people, Cafaro says. Now, with a population around 520,000, the region no longer needs – and can no longer support – the square footage of retail developed 50 years ago.
Discussions about “alternative diversified uses” for the complex led to the development of Eastwood Field, which opened in 1999, Cafaro says.
REINFORCING THE CORE
The company later would develop the Route 46 properties now known as North Commons, anchored by Home Depot and Howland Commons, where Kohl’s operates and Trumbull County’s first Meijer store is under construction.
“Those two projects are extremely significant in that they tend to round out the overall merchandise mix,” Cafaro says.
Home Depot doesn’t go into malls – such spaces don’t work for the home improvement chain’s product categories and display models – and Kohl’s rarely operates in malls, he says.
“Meijer clearly doesn’t go into malls anymore,” Cafaro continues. “So, it gives us the ability to accommodate those non-mall retailers and services, and make us that much more dominant overall in our trading area.”
Retailers on the peripheral properties add what Cafaro calls “a lot of strength” to support the enclosed mall, an “evolutionary process” driven by market conditions. The combination of traditional mall space and non-mall tenants is what makes Eastwood so dominant in the company portfolio. The mall has five department stores, including Target, which opened in 2000, and Boscov’s.
Following a delay resulting from the pandemic, Pennsylvania-based retailer Boscov’s opened its store last October. Boscov’s officials describe themselves as “very pleased” with its performance, Bell says.
“They’ve been very well received by the people in the community,” he says. “They always have a tremendous selection of merchandise at really good price points and consumers respond to that,” Bell continues.
Michigan-based Meijer is building its second store in the Mahoning Valley on the site of the former Super Kmart. Bell anticipates an opening during the first half of 2023. “It’s a very big deal because people love Meijer,” he says.
Another of the newer tenants of the mall – opening just a few months before Boscov’s – is among the most established retailers in the region. Reyers Shoe Store moved from its longtime home in downtown Sharon, Pa., opening in August 2021.
“The Eastwood Mall has been touted as the single best mall in all of Ohio. Every day that we are here reinforces that description,” Reyers President Mark Jubelirer says.
Since moving to the new address, the store team has scored higher than any other shoe store in a national survey and Footwear Insight magazine awarded it a gold medal for service, he says.
“Reyers has done quite well since their debut last year,” Bell affirms. “There was some concern about whether their customers would follow them across the state line to a mall environment. Those customers came and new customers were introduced.”
From the store’s first day a year ago, the Cafaro Co. team has helped Reyers with its marketing efforts, including making the marketplace aware of the new store site.
The shoe store met its sales projections for the second and third quarters of last year, Jubelirer says. 2022, however, has been a challenge because of higher fuel prices, inflation, political disturbances and the lingering effects of the pandemic on traffic.
“All have made the retail business environment combustible and uncertain this year thus far,” Jubelirer says. “However, we have reason to believe that the remainder of this year will enjoy typically increased mall traffic.”
The addition of the hotel properties to the tenant mix – which include Fairfield Inn & Suites, Hampton and Residence Inn – help to attract shoppers to the mall and events to the Eastwood Event Centre.
“In order to get the good events, you need rooms. You need hotels,” Cafaro says. Having Hampton, Marriot and Fairfield “are all pluses for the Event Centre. Also, they complement one another.”
The 15,800-square-foot Eastwood Event Centre, one of the most anticipated projects of the company in recent years, is attached to the main mall building and opened in fall 2020. The event space regularly hosts a variety of social events, business meetings and symposiums.
“Now it’s up and running and doing OK,” Bell says. The center is “living up to its potential [… but] still has room to grow.”
The challenges facing Eastwood include “all the pressures that come from just what’s happening in the economy,” Bell says.
Many people didn’t go outside their homes to shop the last few years. Some tenants report that traffic has rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels, if not beyond, he says.
“Now we’re seeing a recovery in terms of people who are interested in doing the things that they do to entertain themselves: going to restaurants, wanting to go see a show,” Bell says. But recessionary trends and inflation are also taking a toll.
Still, the complex area continues to add new tenants. At Howland Commons, a HomeGoods store is under construction with a planned summer 2023 opening across the parking lot from the Meijer site. A Longhorn Steakhouse, projected to open in February, is going up on the site of the former IHOP. And a groundbreaking is anticipated soon for Flynn Tire and Service Center, going in next to Fairfield Inn and projecting to open next summer.
Other tenants opening soon include Carter’s and Energize Lifestyle Café, a coffee shop. King Cajun Seafood recently opened – one of some 25 restaurants at the complex. Current occupancy is around 90%, Bell says.
Meanwhile, the Cafaro Co.’s proposed Enterprise Park remains in development. The business park is intended to be built next to the main mall complex. Following a court ruling that vacated a permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the company has gone “back to the drawing board [on permitting],” Bell says.
“We knew that this development would take some time because there are so many moving parts,” Bell says. “We look forward to the day when we can make it rise from the ground and become part of the complex.”
Cafaro Sr. says the area is “blessed” to have his two sons – William A. and Anthony Cafaro Jr., who took over as co-presidents in 2009 – run the business. The brothers complement each other’s strengths in terms of expertise and interests.
Once he was the first in the office and the last out, Cafaro Sr. says. Now the opposite is true.
“I can’t spend the time that I used to spend,” he says. “Believe me, if I didn’t have my two sons running the company, I probably would have sold it 15 years ago.”
Pictured: This drone shot, courtesy of the Cafaro Co., shows the full expanse of the Eastwood Mall complex as it encompasses 182 acres and extends into Howland Township.