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The Charleston Town Center mall’s new owner wants to raise the rent of a non-profit music organization, one to be honored Monday by the Charleston Area Alliance.

The Hull Group of Augusta, Georgia, has notified Michael Lipton, director of both the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame and the West Virginia Museum of Music, that its rent and utilities will be substantially raised if it chooses to stay. The organizations have raised and spent $30,000 to improve the museum space.

Meanwhile, the Charleston Area Alliance prepares to present the groups with a We Love Our Community Award 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Clay Center’s Susan Runyan Maier Sculpture Garden.

Susie Salisbury, vice president of community development at the Charleston Area Alliance, said the groups are being awarded “because of their ability to dedicate, document and preserve the rich and lasting contributions West Virginians have made to music.”

Lipton said an initial conversation with a Hull representative offered promise, but soon turned gloomy. The matter is still up in the air, said Lipton, who declined to reveal the amount of the increase. It’s unclear how many other businesses are affected.

“We’ve created two spaces that showcase the rich legacy of West Virginia music and the response from the public has been very positive,” said Lipton, who is also a well-known local musician. “Most recently we’ve put almost $30,000 into the new space. When I first spoke to them they were very enthusiastic about what we were doing. Since then we had a couple of discussions but haven’t arrived at any adequate conclusions.”

The music museum filled a vacancy left by Books-a-Million.

“We should like to stay here and hope they see the benefit of having good-looking storefronts and using them to entice other retailers,” Lipton said.

Hull Vice President for Government Relations John Mulherin responded by email.

“. . . There are a few tenants operating on expired agreements entered into with the previous ownership. The previous ownership group was covering the utilities of the spaces which is something we simply cannot afford to sustain. In total, the total utility consumption charges total more than the tenants are paying in rent. Therefore, we are doing our best to work with the tenants to stay but will require that they pay the utility consumption charges for their rented space. Raising their rent is not the goal. However, a basic lease agreement does most always include the utilities as the responsibility of the occupant and that is what we are working through.”

The Hull Group has laid off staff, said Adams’ Hallmark manager Kim Arthur. An office manager and two maintenance men are all that’s left of mall staff. Security is provided by a third party and is scarcer than before, tenants say. The mall covers about 900,000 square feet.

A photography studio owner, meanwhile, says he has moved out of the Town Center because the mall’s parent company is raising his rent and utilities by a combined 60%.

Mike Winland, owner of Mike Winland Photography, spent much of Tuesday moving out of his mall space, he said, after The Hull Group told him of the increases. Winland estimates he has had four conversations with Hull about the matter.

“It’s always this one girl,” Winland said. “They’ve all been very combative, not very pleasant. I couldn’t believe they wanted to run out the only people who want to be here.”

Winland says he owns a studio building in Kanawha City and he will return to it. He would not divulge raw numbers of the increase.

A Town Center mainstay since 1991, the Adams’ Hallmark business may also be on the move, but not until the end of February. That’s when its lease ends. It has other locations at Dudley Farms, Huntington Mall, Grand Central Mall in Vienna, Meadowbrook Mall in Bridgeport and two in Morgantown.

“We’re sort of in a little bit of a holding pattern until things shake out,” owner Paul Adams said.

Adams says a second mall anchor store is important to him, and would like to see one in place by the end of the year. JC Penney’s is presently the only one.

Adams says Charleston sales this summer “have not been bad.” Hull officials have not promised quick upgrades. Mulherin made repeated references to long turnarounds during his only conversation with this newspaper.

“Our last extension was signed on the basis of the remodel of the Civic Center,” Adams said. “I really hoped the city would be more proactive after spending that kind of money. That didn’t happen, so that’s been a disappointment. There’s potential for growth around that property.

“I’d like to see a big announcement but if that’s forthcoming then we’ll have to reconsider.”

Adams’ criticism of a convention business at the Civic Center may be unfair. COVID-19 cases are still on the rise here and elsewhere. The convention center has yet to operate from under the shadow of COVID, but eventually will, facing a tall task as it competes with larger, more vibrant cities.

The facility itself needs a facelift. Carpeting appeared stained in several spots during a Tuesday stroll. Hull has promised to replace it. In addition, glass doors and surfaces were often smeared with fingerprints and grime. Fewer than 50 people could be spotted on the lower two floors.

This follows the departure of the once-popular Panera Bread, which closed with little fanfare in August.

“Would you sign a two-year lease if you thought you were going to be the only store left in the mall?” Hallmark’s Arthur asked.

Hull has support from at least one elected official, Delegate Jim Barach, D-Kanawha. His Facebook post from Aug. 30 has him pictured at the mall with Hull company head Jim Hull and Mulherin. It praises the two for vowing to add new carpet, covering up empty storefronts and taking a “long-term” approach. He said a passer-by inquired about ballroom dancing lessons in one of the vacant spaces.

“They took his information as their intention is to consider all suggestions,” Barach wrote.

Coincidentally, local commercial property developer Howard Swint and Barach earlier this year championed an aquatic center in the mall, which Hull quickly shot down.

Reached by phone Wednesday, Barach said, “I’d heard that rumor that they’re raising rents. It surprised me. It just doesn’t make any sense to raise rents.”

Barach said he otherwise respects Hull’s approach.

“They could just start a tattoo parlor and an adult bookstore and squeeze as much as they can out of things,” Barach said. “They’re looking for the right clients . . . If that mall goes dark we’re screwed. Closed malls are a blight on the community. They’re an eyesore. If these guys come in here and want to keep it in here, even if it’s limping along, it’s better than someone just shutting it down. I thought they were lucky just to find someone to buy that mall.”

Greg Stone covers business. He can be reached at 304-348-5124 or gstone@hdmediallc.com.

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