If anyone is dreaming of the day when the Charleston Town Center returns to full retail occupancy, then wake up, says an official with the company that bought the troubled enterprise in May.
“We’re trying to keep the tenants we have and then create the right atmosphere,” said John Mulherin, vice president of government relations for The Hull Property Group, based in Augusta, Georgia. “We’re not going to go back to 1984 when this place was full of 100% retail.”
Mulherin stressed that the group isn’t aggressively targeting large, national retailers, because they are in contraction, not expansion, mode; that Hull will investigate loft apartments as a way to fill space; and that small, “regional” boutique stores might be a partial way out of the mire.
That blueprint sounds somewhat similar to what is already taking place in town. Loft apartment projects are underway, or planned, including the recently announced One Commerce Square-Huntington Bank condominium project at the corner of Lee and Hale streets. As for boutique stores, that strategy has been implemented in the Elk City area of the West Side and also would appear to be the only solution to a possible revival in downtown retail.
Mulherin also mentioned, among possible building uses, medical facilities and hotels. Some scuttlebutt has surfaced about a hotel going into the old Sears anchor location, but Mulherin did not commit to his company helping one to materialize. No one category of use will solve the problem, he said.
“You’ve got a lot of large, empty boxes that used to be department stores,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of boutiques to fill that up.”
Commercial property developer Howard Swint has advocated the development of an aquatic center to help fill mall space. Mulherin seemed to throw cold water on that idea.
“It’s not one of our core businesses. We don’t know anything about the operation of an aquatic center. That’s not to say we wouldn’t entertain it if we understood it better. If Mr. Swint wanted to contact me or us I’d be glad to have the conversation, but my initial blush is that is not one our core businesses and we wouldn’t know how to monetize that. But we’d be glad to speak to Mr. Swint or anyone for that matter about this extra space we’re trying to fill up.”
The needle doesn’t seem to have moved much on exact plans for the mall, if Mulherin’s remarks are any indication. Then again, Hull only bought the property in May, for $7.5 million. The company owns 32 other shopping malls across 16 states.
Hull is open to helping prospective mall tenants build out their spaces and buy startup inventory, Mulherin said. These aren’t gifts.
“We’re not in Charleston, West Virginia, on a philanthropic mission,” Mulherin said. “We’re there to feather our own economic nest. There’s a way to way to structure these things. But we’re not angel investors. We’ll get paid off and at the same time the owner of the business will see a payoff.”
Hull officials will be in town this week to investigate “aesthetic renovations,” Mulherin said, including blocking off entrances to closed stores with sheetrock, then installing murals over the repairs. As Hull has done at other holdings, the walled-over spaces will also feature wainscoting and crown molding. New lighting throughout the mall, designed to be more consistent, is also in the works, as is carpet replacement.
As for the murals, Mulherin said, his company will seek community input, looking for anything “inspirational and aspirational.” Historical information about the area, quotes, something indicating “why it’s cool to live in Charleston” would all be candidates, he said.
Mulherin spoke about the mall’s future as The Basketball Tournament prepared to tip off at the Charleston Convention Center and Coliseum, just across Clendenin Street from the mall. The event, featuring former college basketball players from West Virginia and Marshall universities and schools across the country, promises to bring the mall foot traffic.
“One singular event is not going to bring back this mall,” Mulherin said. “This mall has been struggling for a while. It’s going to take a while to redirect the ship. But, sure, to the extent that it creates foot traffic for people who may not have come to the mall, it’s great.”
Mulherin repeated what sounded like a mantra — “stabilize, transform and reposition.” Stabilization occurs with basic aesthetic improvements and making sure more tenants don’t leave, he said. Transformation is growth and improvement, while repositioning occurs once the revamped facility is fully realized. Then it can be integrated, hopefully, into what retail framework the city has left.
“No one wants this mall to fail,” Mulherin said, stressing that Hull never has sold any of its 32 previous properties. “The mall is the biggest gorilla on the block. A failure of that rise and magnitude is hard to hide. It’s in all of our best interests that it succeeds. We’re not solely concerned about small, boutique districts, the retail corridor [Southridge] or the downtown shopping district. No property works as an island. It works in conjunction with others.”
The only aspect of Charleston retail that draws large-volume business is along Corridor G south of town. By virtue of its location, it draws plenty of its shoppers not only from Kanawha but southern counties whose residents have seen their commute times slashed by the four-lane highway. Mulherin did not sound overly concerned about its impact.
“Southridge is appropriate for Costco, but Costco is not appropriate for downtown,” Mulherin said.
If things don’t appear particularly promising right now, hold onto your hats and wait, Mulherin said.
“We’re a privately-owned company. We have the timeline and the ability to work this process in our favor. This is not going to turn around overnight. It took a long time to get where it is and it’ll take a long time to get out of it.”