Hopeful for a new owner, local businesses stick to Steeplegate Mall

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014
Richard Buessing has worked at Steeplegate Mall since it opened in 1990.

In carts and kiosks, he has sold everything from slippers to sunglasses. For the last 14 years, he has owned True Confections candy store.

Earlier this month, Rouse Properties announced the company had defaulted on its loan for Steeplegate and would be turning the mall over to the bank. But Buessing has been in the Loudon Road mall from its beginning, and he doesn’t believe its end is in sight.

“I never worry about change of ownership,” Buessing said. “Usually, change of ownership means doing something better or at least an attempt to do something better.”

The mall’s lender will likely restructure the debt and find a new owner for the property. Questions to the mall’s office were deferred to Colliers International, a real estate group. A New Hampshire representative for the company did not return calls for comment yesterday. While some big-name tenants like Abercrombie, the Children’s Place and New York & Co. have abandoned Steeplegate in recent months, local vendors whose livelihoods are tied to their leases aren’t running for the door just yet.

“I’ve never seen a mall go defunct or go out of business,” Buessing said. “They always tend to reinvent themselves.”

In its recent first-quarter financial report, Rouse Properties noted the 480,000-square-foot mall is only 65 percent occupied. Three of 15 vacant storefronts are in the food court, where Peter Chanda owns Cranberries.

“I don’t have any competition,” Chanda said.

When Chanda learned from the Monitor that Rouse might be shedding the mall, he said he was concerned. His lease doesn’t expire until July 2015. Gathering information has been challenging, but he said he is more optimistic since he has spoken with Concord officials and the mall’s management.

“I think personally I’m disappointed, as business people we need to have information clear,” he said.

Chanda has heard from other companies about bringing his healthy food to their malls. For now, he said, he is happy on Loudon Road where Steeplegate is still the only mall in town.

“I’m not 100 percent confident. . . . I’m 70 percent confident that they are working on this thing and they are going to get a new buyer,” Chanda said.

Concord attorney Ray D’Amante remembers when there was no mall in town. His family owned the land that is now Steeplegate and sold it to a company called Homart, which built the mall and later became General Growth Properties. In 2011, Rouse acquired Steeplegate when General Growth Properties spun off 30 shopping malls that were described as not among their top-performing sites. The D’Amantes have continued to invest in real estate on Loudon Road.

“Things happening around the mall are very positive,” D’Amante said. “Our properties are very busy and economically successful. I think the mall will be the beneficiary of that.”

For 2013, the mall’s assessed value was set at $52 million – a compromise that came out of a settlement agreement between the city and Rouse, which has challenged its assessments for years. City records show Rouse claimed the mall to be worth only $37 million, so when a $47 million balloon payment came due on the Steeplegate mortgage in August, the company didn’t pay.

But D’Amante said that default isn’t necessarily bad for the mall.

“We are pleased that the mall is going to have this transition and be repositioned, so that it sheds that unrealistic debt,” D’Amante said.

“That’s something that I think made a lot of tenants over there feel positive as well.”

He talked about visiting the mall this weekend and witnessing the Sunday crowd.

“It was humming,” D’Amante said.

The mall was quiet yesterday afternoon, though some customers did move between stores with purchases in hand. At the locally owned Tutti Frutti, a small group of teen girls finished their frozen yogurt and moved on to other shops. Store manager Trisha Barnes-Wilson said the store has seen more traffic with fewer options in the food court.

She is just waiting for word on new management, hoping a new owner would bring in more stores geared toward teenagers and children.

“We’ve had a lot of people ask if the mall is closing,” she said. “We tell ’em no, not that we’ve heard.”

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