Experts: Clark County mall unlikely to survive in current form

It’s increasingly clear the Upper Valley Mall won’t be the same venue where generations of Clark County residents grew up shopping, local leaders and retail experts said, even if it survives the loss of two more major stores last month.

Last month Michigan-based retailer MC Sports filed for bankruptcy and said it would close all of its stores, including at the German Twp. mall. One week later, Chakeres Theaters Cinema 5 also went dark after showing movies for almost five decades.

READ MORE: Upper Valley Movie Theater closes after decades

County officials are in the early stages of crafting a redevelopment strategy for the mall that’s seen many national retailers leave, said Tom Hale, executive director for the Clark County Land Re-utilization Corp. But changes in the retail industry — including a growing trend of online shopping — means the property likely won’t be a traditional shopping center again, he said.

It’s just not clear yet what the Upper Valley Mall’s future will look like, he said.

“The mall site is an excellent site for redevelopment, and not totally retail,” Hale said. “It was that for many, many years and it’s time to do something different out there and conform to the changing times.”

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Mall officials have tried to compensate by drawing small, local businesses to fill the space. Those businesses may be successful, said Serdar Durmusoglu, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Dayton. But in most cases, those stores can’t provide the kind of revenue needed to keep such a large property afloat and profitable.

“They’re on a course that’s going to be impossible to turn around in this format,” Durmusoglu said of the mall after the newest closings.

A new plan

Closed anchors Macy’s, Elder Beerman and J.C. Penney have left hefty chunks of vacant space inside the mall. National retailers like Lane Bryant, Cardboard Heroes, Rue 21, Old Navy, Kay Jewelers, American Eagle Outfitters and BonWorth have also shuttered or moved to nearby Bechtle Avenue, where most of the national restaurants and shopping in Clark County have gravitated.

The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery also closed a satellite location at the mall last year, citing declining foot traffic.

MORE ON THE MALL: Upper Valley Mall at a critical crossroads

Sears is the remaining anchor and officials there said last week there’s no plans to close that store.

Mall officials acknowledged that losing the movie theater and sporting goods store will cut foot traffic more and that online shopping and more competition will continue to be a challenge. But Brenda LaBonte, the mall’s general manager, said ownership will focus on drawing a mix of local and national businesses to the property.

The shopping center hasn’t attracted any new national retailers but has had several local, small businesses move in. A new hair salon and an antique furniture store will open later this spring. The furniture store will take over a space that once housed Elder Beerman.

The mall also hosts businesses like Raven Books, a used book store and Pixel Playground, which offers a place for people to gather to play new and vintage video games.

“We are very happy to have these great local, one-of-a-kind tenants because they offer merchandise and entertainment that can only be found at the mall,” LaBonte said. “Offering an affordable rent that allows them to open, incubate and grow will help to support them as well as add to our selection.”

What will work best?

Clark County leaders are also trying to find ways to attract more business both to the mall and other corridors of the county.

The Clark County Land Re-utilization Corp., a non-profit that has received state funding and is also known as a land bank, spent about $250,000 late last year to buy and maintain the former Macy’s property at the mall. That makes the land bank the second-largest property owner at the mall.

DETAILS: 2 new businesses to open at Upper Valley Mall

Clark County commissioners also approved a $50,000 contract with Buxton Co., a Texas-based retail recruitment firm.

The firm collects and analyses consumer data to identify how a community spends retail dollars, then is expected to focus on tracking down retailers that would be a good fit for the region. Buxton will focus on the entire county, not just the mall.

Officials from that firm didn’t return calls seeking comment.

The purchase and research efforts are tied together, Hale said, and the county is working closely with the mall’s owner to develop a strategy for its future.

But it’s still too early to say what the final plan will look like. The land bank has received some unofficial verbal offers for the former Macy’s property, he said, but nothing concrete is in the works. Uses outside traditional retail at the mall are likely, Hale said.

“It could be all types of mixed use,” Hale said. “That’s what the plan is for, is to determine what can we do, what will zoning allow us to do and what do we think will work best.”

Retail shifting

The mall has bled national retailers for the past few years, experts said, but many of the challenges the mall has faced are becoming increasingly common in cities across the U.S.

In early January, The Limited closed all its stores, including at least four in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas. Retailers like Sears, Macy’s, Kmart and Ann Taylor all announced store closures in Ohio earlier this year.

That doesn’t necessarily mean brick and mortar stores will disappear, Durmusoglu said. But it’s clear consumers are increasingly buying online and the retailers that will survive and grow are those that best provide a mix of online shopping and quick service at traditional brick and mortar locations.

PHOTOS: Looking back at Upper Valley Mall in Springfield

Many of the stores that left the Upper Valley Mall closed locations elsewhere as well, Hale said. For example, when MC Sports declared bankruptcy, it closed all of its stores in the U.S., not just in Springfield.

“It’s too easy to point and click and get a pair of tennis shoes,” Hale said.

Some business owners in the mall said they’re optimistic, despite losing the theater and MC Sports in the span of about a week.

Melissa Adams, co-owner of Raven Books, urged residents to be patient while the mall works to figure out what’s next. The loss of several national chains hasn’t had a significant impact on her business, she said.

“Do I want to see a national chain come here? Of course I do,” Adams said. “But it takes a little time to get all that together.”

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Lisa Webb opened Treasure Trove Collectibles last year and sells a variety of items from vinyl records to action figures and Longaberger baskets. Webb’s planning to talk to the mall’s management about moving into the larger space left vacant by MC Sports.

“I hate to see them go but at the same time I’d kind of like to have that visibility,” Webb said.

At the same time, Webb said she expects more national retailers to leave over the next year or so. The collectibles she sells aren’t always easy to find online, she said, and she’s hopeful that encourages people to visit the store in person.

The mall is also trying to bring move events to the mall to attract potential shoppers, LaBonte said. The mall will host the Building Industry Association Home show later this month and hopes to host events like a food truck rally, local car shows and model train shows.

READ MORE: Store closing at Upper Valley Mall, moving to Bechtle Avenue

But Chakeres’ decision to close the theater is a bad sign, Durmusoglu said, particularly considering the challenges Sears faces nationally. If the mall’s lone remaining anchor closed, he said it would put significant pressure on the remaining inline stores to draw traffic.

“The movie theater moving out is a serious alarm bell,” Durmusoglu said. ” Movie theaters are usually one of the last ones to go as far as anchors go.”

Hale argued the mall is still a good location for business, but people need to start thinking more creatively about what it’s future might look like.

“I don’t think the mall’s a bad site and I don’t think it’s a bad place. It’s a victim of what’s happening to everybody,” Hale said. “It has to be rethought and German Twp. feels the same way. The question is what can we do out there to create a positive environment for the community, not necessarily a retail environment.”

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