Washington Prime CEO Credits Community Support for $30M Commitment

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Washington Prime Group wouldn’t be investing $30 million to renovate Southern Park Mall without the support it has received from local leaders and the public, company officials said. 

The Columbus-based real estate firm that owns the shopping center received more of that support when the Mahoning County Board of Commissioners approved the creation of a Community Reinvestment Area during their meeting Thursday.

The CRA, once finalized, would provide a 15-year, 100% abatement on additional property taxes generated from improvements Washington Prime plans to make to the mall. 

Those improvements, which the company announced last summer, include interior and exterior renovations to attract new tenants and the creation of the DeBartolo Commons greenspace event venue, Matt Jurkowitz, Washington Prime’s vice president of development, told commissioners. Other features will include installation of a hike-and-bike path and new stormwater retention facilities to mitigate flooding.     

“The support that we’ve gotten from this community has been tremendous and has bolstered us in coming here today but also in our efforts going forward,” Jurkowitz said. 

Washington Prime’s CEO, Lou Conforti, affirmed he is “blown away” by local support. 

“If it weren’t for the support of the people, we wouldn’t be committing $30 million,” he said. 

“I’m humbled by the support.”

Addressing commissioners at the start of the meeting at the Boardman Township Government Center, Jurkowitz attempted to allay concerns aired by citizens concerned about the $6 million in incentives that Washington Prime is seeking for some of the “non-revenue-generating” improvements, such as the stormwater upgrades and the public event space.  

“The mall team has proposed a plan that would allow for WPG to get what we need without asking the community to spend any money or make any guarantees or be on the hook for any bailouts,” he said. 

The company will pay the full upfront costs for the project. If the mall team spends the money correctly and the improvements generate more taxes for the site, the company is asking the community to allow it to keep a portion of the new taxes generated for a limited period. No existing tax revenue would go to the project, he said. And once the abatement expires, the schools and other entities that receive property taxes would benefit from the increased revenues.   

“To be clear, if there aren’t enough new taxes generated by the mall’s project or the new taxes aren’t enough to cover what the mall is expecting it to cover, the mall would be out,” he asserted. “The community will not be on the hook to make sure the mall gets anything, much less everything.”

Boardman residents and mall business owners spoke in support of the CRA. 

On Thursday, Mahoning County Commissioners Carol Rimedio Righetti, David Ditzler and Anthony Traficanti approved the CRA for the Southern Park Mall project.

For 50 years, the mall has been “the anchor that brings people to the shops, restaurants and entertainment venues that are offered here in Boardman” and Washington Prime “is continuing that vision of upgrades to the mall,” said Marty Loney, township resident and business agent for Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 396. 

Tim Petrey of Canfield, a certified public accountant and one of the owners of Youngstown Clothing Co., a Southern Park tenant, said Washington Prime has been an “outstanding landlord” and had helped his company grow.   

The mall would decline if nothing is done to assist it, said Sarah Lown, public finance manager for the Western Reserve Port Authority. The port authority is working with Washington Prime to put together incentives to support the project. 

“We need all the tools we can use to take action and turn it around,” Lown said. She will work with the state of Ohio “to ensure that we’ve dotted all our I’s and crossed all our T’s and get it through.” 

Attorney and township resident Carl Rafoth offered the only dissenting comments during the meeting. Rafoth cited sections of the Ohio Revised Code that authorize CRAs to be created in areas only where “housing facilities or structures of historic significance are located … and new housing and repair of existing facilities and structures are discouraged,” a threshold he argued the proposed mall CRA does not meet.    

Rafoth requested that the commissioners defer a vote on the CRA until that situation could be investigated. He further called on the state legislature to amend the code section. 

Should the commissioners approve the CRA petition, it would then go to the Ohio Development Services Agency, noted Nicole Kennedy, senior transactional counsel for Washington Prime. 

“It is that body that is responsible for verifying that the proposed CRA does in fact qualify under the statutes,” she continued. “That’s how the state handles the review to make sure that the area is in compliance.” 

Following the meeting, Rafoth said he remained convinced the project would still be viable without the incentives that the developer wants to “unfairly impose” on the township.

“Once the train gets rolling down the track it’s difficult to stop. There’s politics in everything and this is no exception,” he lamented. “I certainly hope that everything comes to fruition as has been proposed.”  

Attorney Carl Rafoth provided the only dissenting comments.

Mahoning County Commissioner David Ditzler called the mall renovation “an exciting opportunity” for the community.

“I always looked at the opportunity to give an abatement as a contract, for both sides to fulfill their obligation and to remove that contract if the obligation wasn’t fulfilled,” he remarked. 

Ditzler pointed out that Boardman Township generates nearly 65% of the sales tax that the county collects and expressed concern over losing “the lifeblood” of the county. “We need every type of opportunity to move forward that we can get. Washington Prime is bringing an opportunity here that is going to snowball,” he said. 

“We need that mall here in our community. It’s a magnet for shoppers,” Commissioner Anthony Traficanti agreed. 

The presence of Denise DeBartolo York – daughter of the late Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., whose company developed the mall – at Thursday’s meeting added credibility to the project, Ditzler noted.

Conforti “reminds me so much of my father. He has the vision, he has the focus, the drive,” DeBartolo York said. “I’m so grateful you believe in us and believe in our Valley.”

The Washington Prime CEO responded that he didn’t “deserve to be held in the same regard as Mr. DeBartolo” but expressed his appreciation for the remark.   

“If we don’t revitalize or reinvigorate Boardman and places like Boardman, we’re screwed as a country,” he said. 

Following the meeting, Jurkowitz said critics who have spoken with company officials regarding their concerns have ended up saying they support the project. 

Among those who have raised concerns about aspects of the project is Anthony Cafaro Jr., co-president of the Cafaro Co., in Niles. Last year, the Cafaro Co. purchased the former Dillard’s Department Store building at Southern Park. Cafaro, who was not at Thursday’s meeting, previously has expressed concerns about parking issues that could be created by the community greenspace being created as well as an income tax being discussed under a possible joint economic development district. 

The income tax being proposed for the JEDD, which would apply a 2% income tax to those working new jobs created in the former Sears space, would only apply to Cafaro’s property if the company consented to be included, Washington Prime’s Kennedy said. 

As far as parking, the mall lot in general and the space near the Dillard’s building in particular both will see an increase in total parking spaces with the demolition of the former Sears Department Store portion of the mall and the Sears auto and tire center, Jurkowitz said.  

Conforti also offered assurances that Cafaro’s legal rights under the reciprocal lease agreement would be protected. 

“We have had a very productive dialogue with Cafaro and we’re going to continue having that dialogue,” he said. 

“When it comes to parking, I believe they expressed that they have confidence we’re going to be able to resolve their concerns,” Jurkowitz said. 

During a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Cafaro agreed that he and Washington Prime officials had “a productive call” and he is optimistic that the discussions would continue in a “positive direction.” He was able to get “a little further glimpse” regarding their plans for the greenspace site, but stopped short of saying his concerns were alleviated. 

“We’re still waiting to get some additional information which has been promised to us to show how the green area is going to be utilized. It’s all continuing to move forward,” he said. 

Pictured above: Washington Prime’s CEO, Lou Conforti, says he is “blown away” by local support.

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