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Steeplegate Mall falls behind peers as vacancies mount

The storefront next to Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt in Steeplegate Mall is empty. Manager Trisha Barnes-Wilson can’t remember what was there last, because she said it’s been empty at least since the shop opened in May.

The view across from Tutti Frutti is another empty storefront. Just down the hall is a cluster of three more vacancies where popular teen retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, women’s clothing store New York & Company and the Calendar Club used to be.

“We’ve had a lot of customers ask lately if the mall is closing. . . . They’ve noticed all the stores that have left,” Barnes-Wilson said.

With 12 out of 57 storefronts vacant, a recent string of closures and a nearly $30 million drop in assessed property value over six years, Steeplegate Mall shows no sign of the upward movement that is right now a national trend for shopping centers and malls.

A spokesman for Rouse Properties, which owns Steeplegate Mall, provided the following statement in response to questions about the mall’s performance and its vacancies:

“As with any mall location, we do experience periodic instances of tenant turnover, but we have a strong track record of finding new retailers to fill vacated space. We plan to re-lease vacant space in keeping with our efforts to bring exciting, high-quality retailers that will create a more enjoyable shopping experience. We look forward to sharing exciting news in the near future.”

Fewer stores, fewer shoppers

George Falabella and his wife, Ann, sat in the red metal chairs in the Steeplegate Mall food court Friday morning with their friend Martha Ruddy. They come here almost every day to walk around the mall, drink a cup of coffee and catch up with a crowd of regulars – “Everybody here walks the mall,” George Falabella said, gesturing to a few nearby tables of seniors.

Those regulars walk past the stores as employees roll up metal gates to open at 10 a.m. They remember when CVS and Things Are Cooking, both now located downtown on Main Street, were in the mall. And as they take their lap every morning and then sit to watch the shoppers, they’ve noticed fewer retailers and fewer customers over the years.

“There’s nothing,” said Ann Falabella, 72. “There’s nothing.”

Ruddy, 79, stabbed the ice in her plastic Dunkin’ Donuts cup with her straw.

“I see a lot of people walking, but never with bags,” she said.

Near their table in the food court are the counters where Burger King and a Chinese restaurant used to be, both now closed. The fast food chain was one of the most recent businesses to go, following clothing stores New York & Company, Aéropostale and Abercrombie & Fitch out the door.

That walking route through the mall passes spaces for 57 businesses in addition to the three anchors – Sears, JCPenney and the Bon-Ton. Of those storefronts, 12 are vacant. It’s easy to see inside most of those empty shops, where the lights are off and the doors locked. In one vacant store, a line of kiosks sat unused.

Steeplegate Mall had an occupancy rate of 72.6 percent at the end of September, according to Rouse Properties’ last quarterly report. That’s down from 73.6 percent in the previous quarter.

But most malls are seeing stores open instead of close, said Jesse Tron, a spokesperson for the International Council of Shopping Centers. The ICSC promotes and analyzes the shopping industry.

“From a national perspective, it would sort of be the opposite,” Tron said. “Things are trending upward in the industry right now. Occupancy is up across the board, retail sales are up across the board.”

Consumers are spending money again, Tron said, and the retail industry is rebounding from the economic downturn in 2008.

“We’re seeing more expansion than we’re seeing contraction, which wasn’t true a few years ago. . . . There are retailers out there expanding,” he said.

Steeplegate Mall opened in 1990 and is owned by Rouse Properties, which acquired the mall in 2011 when General Growth Properties spun off 30 shopping malls that were described as not among their top-performing sites.

Rouse Properties publishes little financial information about its individual properties. But Steeplegate Mall is classified as a “B” mall, said Kathy Temchack, the city’s director of real estate investments. An “A” mall could have retail sales of $600 per square foot and up, not including data from its anchor stores, Temchack said. At the lowest ranking, a “C” mall would be at retail sales of $250 per square foot or less.

The assessed value of Steeplegate Mall, which is calculated in part with data on retail sales, is set at $52 million for 2013. In 2008, that value was $83 million. That’s nearly a $30 million difference in six years, a drop Tron said would not be considered normal.

“That sharp of a decline, no,” Tron said.

And the mall has been challenging the city’s assessments of the property for years – it’s actually worth less, the owners have argued.

Most recently, Concord signed a settlement agreement to refund the mall $1.6 million on its property tax bills for 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012. The city assessed the property to be worth $65 million in 2012, but records from the board of assessors show Rouse Properties claimed the mall to be worth only $37 million that year.

In 2012, the city signed a similar settlement agreement to pay back $231,000 on the mall’s 2005, 2006 and 2007 tax bills. And in 2009, the state Supreme Court sided with the city when the mall challenged its 2004 tax bill.

The mall is Concord’s second-largest taxpayer, Temchack said.

“The city certainly wants them to succeed and hopes that they do succeed,” Temchack said.

‘Lackluster turnaround’

In downtown Concord, Chamber of Commerce President Tim Sink has been one of the local voices pushing for the Main Street project, which would widen sidewalks for pedestrians and reduce traffic from four lanes to two. The redesign, which will go before the city council again tomorrow, could also beautify downtown by making aesthetic improvements such as public art and pocket parks.

One of the reasons Sink has advocated for the project, he said, is because local business still needs a boost to fully recover from the recession. Holiday sales weren’t as strong as some Concord business owners hoped they would be, Sink said.

“It has been a lackluster turnaround,” Sink said.

While most Chamber of Commerce members are not located in Steeplegate Mall, Sink said he wasn’t surprised the Loudon Road development has also struggled to rebound.

“I do go by the mall,” he said. “It has not looked particularly robust from a traffic standpoint.”

About seven years ago, Art and Janet Learned moved their store, Things Are Cooking, from its original location in the mall to Main Street. Janet Learned, now 70, said the couple has since retired and new owners have taken over the shop. The Learneds decided to move the store they had operated in the mall for almost 15 years because they were looking for a different location with a back entrance, she said, and they couldn’t find what they wanted in the mall.

But the rent was also far more reasonable downtown, she said.

“We handled it for many years, but it was a mom-and-pop operation, and we worked many hours so that we could pay the rent and keep a few employees busy,” she said.

A host of local businesses set up shop alongside Things Are Cooking when the couple opened their store in 1990. There was a store that sold cookies, Janet Learned said, and an ice cream shop. The True Confections candy store that still stands between Dunkin’ Donuts and JCPenney is one of the few locally owned operations that remain in the mall. A national chain moved into the old Things Are Cooking when the Learneds moved out.

“We had always thought, with the high rents that malls demand, it’s more and more difficult for a small business to survive,” she said.

Available for lease

On Friday morning, Norman Simoneau and his wife, Timmy, took a trip to the mall while in Concord on another errand. The Chichester couple sat down for coffee and donuts while they waited for True Confections, his favorite, to open. They used to buy Burger King coffee when it was open, but this time, they had to switch to Dunkin’ Donuts.

They come by the mall to shop the sales every now and then – “anywhere there’s a bargain,” said Timmy Simoneau, 81.

But they want to see more options, maybe a hardware store, a shoe repair store or different restaurant options.

“There’s a lot I’d like to see change,” said Norman Simoneau, 87.

Nearby, Carrie Guerrette led her daughter Paige to a bench. The 35-year-old from Newbury came to Concord looking for jeans, which she said she might find at Old Navy or American Eagle. For a mom with a 5-year-old, the mall makes for an efficient shopping trip.

“I like it because everything is in one location,” she said.

As she sat across from a vacant storefront that was a Toys R Us during the holidays, Guerrette said she hopes more kids’ stores lease those spaces soon. She’ll drive all the way to Manchester to find Build-A-Bear Workshop, a favorite for her daughter and her friends.

“It’s a nice little mall (in Concord),” Guerrette said. “You don’t want to see it hurt.”

Jason Chudoba, a spokesperson for Rouse Properties, declined to confirm the number of vacancies in the mall or discuss any details about the future of Steeplegate Mall.

“I do want to reiterate the company’s commitment to re-lease vacant space and bring exciting new retailers to the mall,” he wrote in an email.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)

Note to Ed.: If you’re going to be reporting that a mall with a particular occupancy rate is behind the national average, and your main source is a national expert on mall data, WHY would you not think it perhaps helpful or maybe even critical to let readers know what the national average mall occupancy rate IS?

The other factor is on-line shopping and it's impact on traditional shopping. Myself, I usually buy online, but I have always hated shopping. I did go to Speer's before the holidays but that was probably the first time in over 10 years I was out of my car on Main Street. I actually spent more time trying to park than actually shopping.

The mall and Main Street are in the same boat. No one has ANY money left over after paying taxes and heating bills. The dems are for the working people??? Baloney! Obummer and his minions love the price of gas and oil being $4.00 per gallon. It's good for the environment, and as a bonus it puts more people out of work and on the dole.

Oh theres money being spent. Over an hours wait to get a table at Longhorns on a Sat. night.

"One of the reasons Sink has advocated for the project, he said, is because local business still needs a boost to fully recover from the recession. Holiday sales weren’t as strong as some Concord business owners hoped they would be, Sink said." Problem is Tim, stores won't survive the construction!

There's so many other more convenient options out there in today's marketplace. I feel for the store owners and their businesses. But as someone who's teen years were in the 1980s - the heyday of Mall culture - I can't say it's a bad thing that there are fewer malls nowadays.

Amen Dan! Malls are dinosaurs and hassling with the crowds and parking and impulse options, it is better to just stay home. I have not visited a mall for about 5 years and all of my Christmas shopping has been done online for about the last 4 years. The prices are cheaper, I don't have to leave the house and often the packages come already gift wrapped. You are correct, there are so many more convenient options.

Mom and pop stores don't belong in a mall.

Many years ago I had stores in malls and I might have disagreed with you but today I totally agree with you. No matter what you do in a mall, you need deep pockets. The costs go beyond rent and the rents are huge. In the early 90's, for instance the rent for just a few hundred square feet of space at Steeplegate was between $3500 to $6000. In a strip mall plaza that would have been halved. Then at malls you have common area management charges, taxes, etc. Unless you have 6-9 months of backup cash, malls are not for mom and pop businesses.

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