At Age 50, Eastwood Mall Still Grows Stronger

NILES, Ohio – Despite the challenges facing suburban malls across the country, Anthony Cafaro Jr. maintains that the Eastwood Mall is stronger at the half-century mark than it was a decade ago.

Developed by the Cafaro Co., Eastwood Mall opened Sept. 17, 1969, a landmark the real estate developer is celebrating later this month. Originally covering 1 million square feet, the mall itself now is 1.5 million square feet and the entire Eastwood Mall Complex stands at about 3.3 million square feet of commercial space that includes later additions such as the Great East Plaza in the mid-1970s and Howland Commons in the 1990s.

“In many communities, the mall may be obsolete. In the Mahoning Valley, I don’t think that’s the case at all,” says Cafaro, co-president of the Cafaro Co. 

“If anything, the Eastwood Mall Complex has proven quite the opposite,” he continues. “Arguably, it is the dominant focal point of commerce, certainly in Trumbull County and potentially in the entire Mahoning Valley.” 

The 130.8-acre complex today features a mix of national and local retailers, restaurants, hotels, two churches, two multi-screen movie theaters and an athletic stadium that’s home to a Cleveland Indians farm team.  

Cafaro and his brother, William, took over as co-presidents of the company from their father, Anthony Cafaro Sr., in December 2009. Like many residents of the Mahoning Valley, he recalls his first exposure to the mall came at an early age. 

It was around age 10 that he became aware of the role the mall played in his family. His father was working on the deal to bring Toys R Us to the mall complex and the lease was sitting in the car as his father was taking him somewhere. After picking the document up and leafing through it, his father told him to read through it and mark it if he had any questions. 

Over the next few years, he began accompanying his father on trips and then working in maintenance during summers at age 12, “probably in violation of several child labor laws,” he says with a laugh. Those early duties included painting the fountains inside the mall and the curbs and the bollards outside. He eventually worked in the billings and leasing departments and went through the mall management training program, working as assistant operations manager at Eastwood for a summer. 

William and Alyce Cafaro were joined by Miss USA 1969 Wendy Danscomb for the mall’s grand opening that same year.

“I graduated from college in December of ’96,” he says. “My dad said I got the month of January off, and I started work full time on Feb. 3, 1997.”

The mall was expanded in 1978 to accommodate the addition of JCPenney and again about to 20 years ago to house Target.

The mall is “truly a regional shopping destination” that draws customers from Ashtabula to the north, Sharon, Pa. to the east and into Mahoning County to the south, Jeff Lyda says. 

Lyda and his sister, Debbie Simon, co-own Party On!, a local party supply and costume store, at the mall complex. The siblings initially opened the store in 1998 in a 2,500-square-foot space. They moved to a 10,000-square-foot space in Boulevard Centre in 2003, before recently taking over a 24,000-square-foot space in McKinley Centre, across from the main mall property on the opposite side of U.S. Route 422. 

“Since the beginning, the Cafaro family and Eastwood Mall have fostered our growth, starting with small spaces and keeping an open line of communication with our family,” Lyda says. “They respond to market changes and gave us guidance and assistance whenever we asked.”     

In 2006, Lyda and Simon opened another store, Everything Buckeyes, in the mall itself. “Ohio State merchandise was in high demand and we saw a void in our market,” he says.  

The mall property is also populated with multiple dining establishments. Three of them are operated by Warren-based Covelli Enterprises: an O’Charley’s that opened in 2006, a Panera Bread that opened in 2010 and a Dairy Queen that opened in 2013. 

Covelli Enterprises’ history with the mall extends further back, when the company operated a McDonald’s at the property, recalls Allen Ryan, director of corporate affairs for Covelli Enterprises. 

“Every year, the restaurants continue to do better than the year before,” Ryan says. “The Cafaros are always making changes and updating their business plans to the changing times. We expect that to continue and as a result we expect to see our businesses grow there.” 

Cafaro points to the construction of the 6,000-seat baseball stadium today known as Eastwood Field, home of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers, as a transitioning point for the mall complex.

The stadium not only enhanced the property’s positioning as a lifestyle center but also expanded the shopping center’s regional draw, he says. Before construction of the ballfield, while there were some “nuanced differences” between Eastwood and Southern Park Mall in Boardman. Both were shopping destinations that shared many of the same retailers and anchors, including Sears and Kaufmann’s.

“In today’s shopping center industry, the buzzwords are experiential and entertainment,” Cafaro says.

Twenty years ago, taking the mall from a “shopping center environment to more of a community center” through the addition of entertainment, restaurants and other lifestyle amenities wasn’t a new challenge for the company, he continues. And the shift has been well received, both by shoppers and Cafaro Co.’s counterparts in the industry. 

Eastwood Mall has responded to the needs of its community and brought in tenants that are in demand and bring the community together, says Stephanie Cegielski, vice president of public relations for the International Council of Shopping Centers. 

“We are seeing landlords diversifying their tenant mix to address potential closures as well as address consumer demand,” Cegielski says. “Consumers want more food and beverage, entertainment, grocery and fitness offerings, which landlords are incorporating.”

The original Eastwood Mall was 1 million square feet. Additions over the years have brought the total square footage to 1.5 million.

Among the changes to the mall was the addition of a three-tank aquarium at center court as part of 2006 renovation. When Cafaro’s mother suggested it, the 18,760-gallon setup that now occupies the space wasn’t quite what he had in mind. 

“I’m thinking a little aquarium like you see in a doctor’s office,” he recalls. 

She had suggested the feature to replace the carousel that was coming out as part of the renovation. Cafaro recalls being surprised at the price tag for the project, but today praises the idea. 

“It’s worked out well for us. It’s been an attraction,” he says. “Everybody loves to see that.” 

Not every change has been greeted warmly, Cafaro acknowledges. Some questioned the wisdom of adding hotels to the property. He would get emails from people – most often residents from Mahoning or Trumbull counties – saying that they would never stay there. 

“I don’t expect [them] to stay here,” he says. “We want to inject out-of-town dollars into our community.” 

The Cafaro Co. will mark the half-century anniversary with an invitation-only event Sept. 15 at the mall that celebrates its history and looks at “how we’ve evolved as a complex” as well as “what it is we’re doing looking forward,” Cafaro says. 

An announcement is expected regarding the operator for the long-planned event space, but there could be others beyond that, both with regard to the mall property itself or the Enterprise Park commercial development project that is being developed nearby. Enterprise Park has the potential to change not just the mall complex but in many respects “the entire region,” Cafaro says.    

A rendering of the Enterprise Park development at the Eastwood Mall Complex.

In addition to enhanced medical facilities, early plans for the Enterprise Park project call educational components, professional space and residential space, says Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for the Cafaro Co. 

“It’s not what we have usually done in the past. This is a true mixed-use development,” he says. 

“Do we have a specific grandiose announcement of a major development attached to the mall?” Cafaro says. “I guess it’s a possibility but it’s not specifically planned today.” 

A central part of the 50th anniversary event will be a celebration of “the pioneers of our industry,” such as Cafaro Co. founder William M. Cafaro and Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., who developed the Southern Park Mall in Boardman. 

“We’re going to be unveiling a special tribute,” he says. 

“It’ll be impressive,” Bell adds.   

Anthony Cafaro Sr., who serves as a consultant to the company operated by his two sons, is optimistic about the company’s prospects for the future.   

“I am blessed that the two co-presidents have the initiative, intelligence and commitment to the company that is a prerequisite for our ongoing success,” he says. “I couldn’t be happier with the direction the co-presidents have taken.”

Anthony Cafaro Jr. recalled being struck by the sense of community within the mall complex when the Cafaro Co. first opened its new offices at the Eastwood Mall in 2016. He’s reminded of it each day when he arrives for work, as he walks through the mall to the corporate offices from where he parks at the opposite end of the complex. 

During that walk, he sees many of the same people, whether mall employees, tenants or the mall walkers who come to the mall for exercise.  

“This is their mall as much as it is ours,” he reflects. 

Pictured: Anthony Cafaro Jr., left, and William A. Cafaro, right, today run Cafaro Co., while their father Anthony Cafaro Sr. serves as a consultant.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.