In wide-ranging, loud oratory Tuesday, Hull Group president and Charleston Town Center owner Jim Hull said “he’s trying to hold onto the tenants he’s got” then later vowed that he is “fixing to kick out” a certain number from Town Center mall.
Included in the housecleaning are all kiosks, which Hull called “down market,” and Michael Lipton’s West Virginia Music Hall of Fame.
“He was getting free rent but we told him he had to pay the electric,” said Hull, 71.
Lipton said that is true, but his organization is a non-profit and Hull wanted to charge $23,000 a year for electricity. Hull sounded as if the Music Hall of Fame would be a liability for attracting new tenants, but has not officially ousted the entity.
“If you want to attract a new tenant what new tenant would come?” he asked, voice rising. “Nobody in their right mind. Give me six months of disciplined leadership and I’ll turn around that perception. I want people to say, ‘I’m still in a mall with no tenants but that damn place looks great and I feel good when I’m in there.’”
Why anyone would be in a mall with no tenants is unclear.
The brushoff given Lipton’s organization is conspicuous. Last month, the Charleston Area Alliance presented both his groups a We Love Our Community award. The organizations have raised and spent $30,000 to improve the museum space.
Susie Salisbury, vice president of community development at the Charleston Area Alliance, said the groups were being awarded “because of their ability to dedicate, document and preserve the rich and lasting contributions West Virginians have made to music.”
Hull also became quite vexed when discussing his organization’s experiences at Fairgrounds Square, a mall it owns in Reading, Pennsylvania. Hull demolished about 80% of the building, but has yet to redevelop any of it. It announced it would redevelop it, then got into a fight with local officials there over taxes. Hull won the tax increment financing battle, saying redevelopment was back on, but nothing yet has materialized.
“We spent more than $6 million up there,” he said. “We spent so much money. It’s one of the proudest things I’ve ever done. We spent tons of money on Boscov’s and Burlington, repaved the parking lots. We turned it into such a beautiful, beautiful place. It’s the most beautiful piece of land. I’ll send you some aerials of it.”
He also offered to take a reporter up in a plane to view the property.
Boscov’s is a department store that preceded the mall, which grew up around it. Burlington is Burlington Coat Factory, which had a brief, 1980s run in Charleston, in the old Diamond headquarters.
The Gazette-Mail has seen photos of the property, provided by The Reading Eagle. Green space separates a handful of buildings. Inside views are not available. Hull originally said it would develop a hotel, two rows of stores, townhomes with a clubhouse and a pool and walkways connecting it all, according to artists’ renderings.
Muhlenberg Township Commissioner Michael Malinowski told the Gazette-Mail the property looks improved, but Hull has not brought in any new retail.
Since buying the Charleston mall in May, Hull has repeatedly stated that any turnaround at the facility will be long-term, but has offered no concrete plan for pursuing new tenants.
He said West Virginians are passionate about food, and he would be willing to help finance a restaurant startup, through an arrangement he called “subordinated indenture.” This means Hull would loan someone money and if the enterprise goes belly up, Hull would legally be the final party to be paid back. Hull’s John Mulherin mentioned a similar arrangement during a summer interview.
“We have to make sure we’re not getting the wrong tenant in there,” Hull said. “We’ve got to be uber disciplined. What do we mean when we say that? The correct storefront, the right aesthetic, fully inventoried, not a one-dimensional tenant. We’re not interested in barbershops.”
Full-service salons, if not barbershops, were once a mainstay at Town Center. Now only one remains, at J.C. Penney, which owns its own building within the structure. Two nail salons also remain.
“National tenants are leaving Charleston, but it has a great advantage because it’s a state capital,” Hull said. “Corridor G is looked up to like it’s utopia ... To me, the tenants we don’t have are much, much more important than the tenants we do.”
Hull then plunged into a discussion of lighting aesthetics, new carpet and murals to cover up the vacant storefronts. The store coverups have been ongoing at Town Center since Hull bought the building, and have been used at other Hull properties. Mulherin also mentioned it during the summer. Hull called it a “sacrificial aesthetic.”
In response to Hull raising rents and/or expenses, the operator of a photography studio left in September. Town Center mainstay Adams Hallmark indicated it was on the way out, if the unlikely discovery of a new anchor store did not occur by the end of the year. Panera Bread also left over the summer.