Financing Unanswered at Mall Community Meeting

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Washington Prime Group hosted a Coffee with the Community session Friday at the mall where they have announced plans to spend up to $30 million to upgrade. But some who attended felt many questions, particularly those regarding financing, were left unanswered.

Originally, the company planned to close the session to media coverage. After receiving objections from local newsrooms, the company reversed course before the session began at 11:30 a.m., permitting reporters to attend but no video cameras.

About 40 people attended the forum that sought to provide “an opportunity for the community to have an authentic conversation with us in an informal setting” regarding redevelopment of the mall, said Kim Green, vice president, investor relations and corporate communications for Washington Prime, in an email requesting comment. No new announcements were made, “which was why this particular event was not intended to be a press event,” she added.

“We just wanted to create a forum for people to ask questions and voice their opinions, and we did just that,” affirmed Brian Gabbert, mall general manager.

During the session, Gabbert fielded questions regarding the kinds of physical improvements being made to the mall, the DeBartolo Commons addition and a planned retention pond on property the mall owns east of the Tinseltown movie theater. The company is targeting a late summer completion for the work.

“This is my seventh mall. I’ve been all over the country,” he said. “This is the biggest project I‘ve ever been a part of.”

Brian Gabbert, general manager of the Southern Park mall, chats with Linda Macala, executive director of the Mahoning County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

That malls are struggling is no secret, he said, in part because of online shopping, which he confessed he does as well.

“So the question we’ve had to ask ourselves is what do we do with our real estate that’s more relevant,” he said. “The answer is to do something experiential.”

Upgrades inside the mall include upgrades to the mall’s lighting, flooring, restrooms and the food court. “There was some talk about pushing that off until ’21 but now the idea is to do the whole thing at once. It’s going to be interesting for a while,” Gabbert said.

Outside the main mall building, plans include an ice-skating rink and a cut Christmas tree farm during the cold-weather months in the new the DeBartolo Commons, he said. The elevation of the retention pond site is too high to take in water from other sources and alleviate township flooding issues, but it will at least alleviate “what we’re contributing,” he said.

Some of those in attendance had questions regarding the incentives and financing tools being sought to assist the project, including a proposed income tax applied to employees in the space being added and a property tax abatement, as well as a Joint Economic Development District, which would require Boardman to partner with a local municipality.

Gabbert said he could not address those questions, but those issues would be directed to the Columbus-based real estate developer’s corporate office for a response.

Those attending included Anthony Cafaro Jr., president of the Niles-based Cafaro Co. In February, the company purchased the former Dillard’s department store building at Southern Park for $8.92 million.

“We’ve been working diligently to secure an appropriate user or users to occupy the space,” Cafaro said. The viability of that space “is in many ways dependent upon the plans here with Southern Park Mall as a whole.”

Cafaro was among those at the meeting seeking more information about the incentives than has already been reported by media outlets, as well as information more broadly on how the property would be used. A situation in which the proposed income tax would be applied to workers in the former Dillard’s space “could be something that would potentially keep businesses away,” he said.

Youngstown City Council President DeMaine Kitchen also attended to find out more about the potential incentives. He recalled the controversy when former Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams proposed using JEDDs as an economic development tool.

“If they don’t get the abatement, if they don’t get the JEDD, where does that leave the project? I thought it was going to be more of that conversation but unfortunately those people who could answer that weren’t even in attendance,” Kitchen said.

Others were enthusiastic about the project.

“It’s great. We need something for this mall. It’s pretty sad, all of the stores going out,” said Boardman resident Angela Walsh.

Milly Acevedo, a division lead with Primerica Financial Services, is eagerly anticipating the project. Her company is opening a branch in a building across from the mall.

“Seeing this happening is really exciting,” the Columbiana resident said. “It’s exciting to see something that would have a better experience for the community.”

Jeff Barone, president of the Boardman Board of Education, also expressed his support for the project. “This is a win-win for the community,” he said.

The school board will act on approving language for a proposed Community Reinvestment Area for the mall, Barone said. If approved by the Mahoning County Board of Commissioners, the CRA would cap the valuation of the mall property at its value following the demolition of the former Sears section – but prior to the improvements being planned – for 15 years.

“If we don’t let them spend $30 million, we have zero chance of this mall increasing in value over the years,” Barone said.

“Ever been to a community where the mall’s dead? It’s not a good look,” he added.

Boardman Township will take up the mall’s request to create a Community Entertainment District at its Dec. 30 meeting. The district would provide up to five additional liquor permits, which would allow the mall to attract restaurants and other venues that would require them, township Administrator Jason Loree said.

Ken Platt of Struthers shared mixed feelings about what he heard at the meeting.

“It sounds really good to fix up the place and to reinvent itself,” but the financing “seems like a moving target,” he said. He also was concerned about the income tax on the workers, many of whom don’t make much more than minimum wage, he added.

“I hope it all works out.”

Pictured above: Work continues at the Southern Park Mall as construction equipment makes way for the forthcoming DeBartolo Commons project.

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