Boonshoft’s departure blow for Clark County mall

Updated March 31, 2016

The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery’s recent announcement that it will close its location at the Upper Valley mall puts added pressure on the shopping center’s new ownership to find tenants who will draw shoppers, local leaders said this week.

Mall officials have cited the museum as an example of a unique tenant that they are looking for to attract residents, who may then go to other stores. The roughly 20,000-square-foot museum has occupied space in the former Elder-Beerman store since the end of 2013.

Losing Boonshoft creates a tenuous situation, said Horton Hobbs, vice president of economic development for the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce.

“The nice thing about Boonshoft was it was a traffic generator for the mall, which was certainly needed,” Hobbs said. “To lose that it’s pretty obvious what the impact is going to be. However, it’s going to be really important for (the new owner) to develop a vision for what he wants to see that property become from his perspective. It’s going to be really important for him to communicate that to the existing tenants at the mall.”

New Upper Valley Associates purchased the site for about $2.5 million in an online auction late last year. Rao Chekka, managing partner, has previously said he bought the property because he believes it can succeed with the right mix of tenants.

Mall officials said this week the museum was an important tenant, but they will look for creative ways to fill that space when it Boonshoft closes at the end of April.

Brenda LaBonte, the mall’s general manager, didn’t respond to requests to interview Chekka, but said in a statement that Boonshoft has been a valued partner to the mall and the community since it opened in 2014.

“We worked together on numerous events that brought a great deal of joy to our customers,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that they have decided to leave the mall, we understand their circumstances and wish them the best. We will continue our search in bringing retailers and other non-traditional retail partners to Upper Valley Mall that offer something new for our loyal customers.”

As anchors like J.C. Penney and Macy’s have closed at the mall, Boonshoft officials said they saw a 20-percent decline in attendance in the past year.

The museum is considering other locations in Springfield, and has a lease option with the city of Springfield for the former Myers Market building at 101 S. Fountain Ave. But to operate there, it would need to raise about $4 million to cover the cost of renovations and set up an endowment, said Kristy Creel, Boonshoft director of marketing.

“We’ve been working with different members of the community to see if that funding is available, but I would say that is still a question at this point,” Creel said.

The museum’s current members will be able to use their memberships at the museum’s other venues, including the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery Dayton, the SunWatch Indian Village/Archaeological Park and the Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve.

“What we charge as a nonprofit is not what it costs to keep things up and running,” Creel said. “You need a certain endowment just to keep the location viable.”

It’s possible the museum could extend the lease option with the city for the space downtown if needed, said Mark Meister, president and CEO of the Dayton Society of Natural History, which operated the Springfield museum. But the preference is to have money at least pledged by July, he said.

Several businesses are still seeing success at the mall, Clark County Commissioner John Detrick said.

“There’s still a lot of vitality out there,” Detrick said. “If they could land one big (tenant) it would be a home run.”

Local leaders are willing to work with the mall’s ownership to help the area rebound, Hobbs said.

“It’s very clear that we want the mall area to be vibrant again,” Hobbs said. “We want the mall area to succeed and we made some pretty direct suggestions on how we thought that could be done. (Chekka) needs to evaluate those things from a business perspective and make a decision about how he moves forward.”