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Mall traffic slows to crawl

Washington Mall retailers say business is dropping, partly due to competition

Saturday, April 07, 2001

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The pretzel lady began to cry, her heart seemingly tied in a knot because she's leaving Washington Mall at month's end after 17 years of serving sodas and salty snacks to shoppers.

"No business," lamented Wally Janicki, owner of The Pretzel Oven. "Absolutely no business. We can't do it."

The vagaries of retail capitalism have pinned Janicki against the counter of her kiosk. Business at Washington County's first mall is down since construction of two shopping centers about a mile north on Route 19 and expansion of a rival mall across town.

The 33-year-old mall is so empty at times, Janicki said, a bowling ball could be rolled down the corridor without hitting anyone.

A handful of tenants have left. One storekeeper said he'd prefer to be in the rival mall, Washington Crown Center in North Franklin, if he could afford it.

Other tenants cut costs and switched gears as sales declined.

"What happened to Baskin-Robbins?" a shopper asked two companions one afternoon in front of two-month-old Pap Pap's Quality Ice Cream Parlor.

Rumors aside, there is no plan to close the mall, sell it or turn it into an outlet for discount stores, co-owner Stephen I. Richman said. Though some tenants are struggling, the 663,000-square-foot mall is debt-free and "very profitable" for the owners, Richman said.

"I can say there's no contemplated sale at the present time. I'm not going to say it'll never happen. There's nothing in the works now," Richman said.

George Amos, a former tenant who had operated Amos Home Products, said the mall didn't promote itself well or try new things. But at least one project is under way.

"We are currently working on new design drawings to modernize the look of the mall," John E. Kramer, executive vice president of JJ Gumberg Co., mall management agent, said in a statement.

Richman, a Washington lawyer, said he felt a wave of concern after signing a promissory note for $4 million he and others borrowed to turn a cornfield into the mall.

That was a pile of money in the 1960s.

"Oh my God," Richman recalled thinking. "How can I go to sleep at night after that?"

Enclosed shopping centers were a novelty then, found mainly in places such as New York and Philadelphia.

But Richman and his partners -- including his father, Ben, and the Falconi cousins, Angelo and Phillip -- had a hunch the concept would catch on. It helped that the recently constructed interstate highways passed near their cornfield.

Some merchants believed the central business district in Washington "would continue to be a strong and forceful one" after the mall opened in 1968, Richman said.

But Main Street quickly lost ground to the mall, with its free parking and controlled climate. The downtown's decline was accelerated a year later with the opening of Franklin Mall, now Washington Crown Center, Richman said.

Three decades later, as city leaders struggle with a downtown revitalization, it is Washington Mall's turn to be buffeted by shifts in the retail market.

While trying to negotiate a favorable lease years ago, Gary Magreni said, he reminded Phillip Falconi of the plans for new shopping centers in the township. The hint fell flat.

"He said, 'When I see them back a bulldozer off a truck, then I'll be concerned,' " recalled Magreni, who operated Thompson Hardware and Pottery Factory Outlet at the mall.

Falconi, who could not be reached for comment, would have had reason to doubt the plans. Developers proposed the shopping centers in the late 1980s, and the plans and principals changed more than once before the first bulldozer arrived.

Strabane Square and Trinity Point began welcoming shoppers in 1998 and 1999, respectively. Washington Crown Center held a grand re-opening in 1999.

As a pizza shop owner tells it, the pie has been cut into too many slices.

"I think there's only so much money in Washington," said Rich Pagano, who has operated Pizza Boy at Washington Mall for 11 years and saw sales drop after the new developments opened and the other mall expanded.

The increasing number of stores has reconfigured the shopping patterns of local residents, not lured shoppers to Washington Mall from other areas, Pagano said. While the other developments are said to be drawing shoppers from the South Hills and West Virginia, Washington Mall tenants said they're not seeing the influx.

Pagano said Washington Mall lacks the drawing power of the other developments such as Washington Crown Center, which includes trendy retailers like Gap, Old Navy and Victoria's Secret.

"I can't tell you why they have not located at Washington Mall," Richman said. "They would certainly be welcome if the right terms can be worked out."

The mall's big stores are J.C. Penney, Staples, Toys "R" Us and Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts and Lang's, a women's fashion store. The mall traditionally has had a number of small, independently owned stores and restaurants.

Richman and his business associates also own the adjoining site where Home Depot is located and Oak Spring Center, across from the mall.

The 500,000 square-foot Strabane Square, owned by Gustine Co., has Lowe's, Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, TGI Friday's, Texas Roadhouse and Giant Eagle, which abandoned its nest at Washington Mall after three decades.

Trinity Point, owned by Mosites Development Co., has a 130,000-square-foot Sam's Club, a 220,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, McDonald's, Cracker Barrel, Applebee's, Ponderosa and SpringHill Suites. Wal-Mart moved there from Oak Spring Center.

Sears, Kaufmann's, Ames and Bon-Ton are the big tenants at 671,000-square-foot Washington Crown Center, owned by Crown American Corp. The mall has a drop-in child care center and minilounges where shoppers can watch cable television and surf the Web.

"We had the busiest traffic season ever in our mall this past holiday season," general manager Richard Conrady said.

One evening about 10 years ago, Washington Mall owners gathered at Tambellini's Restaurant on Route 51 in Pittsburgh.

With the flick of a cigarette lighter, the mall's 23-year mortgage went up in flames. Other diners joined the mall owners in a chorus of cheers, Richman recalled.

He declined to give details about the profit he said the mall is making for the owners.

With its boarded-up windows, the space Giant Eagle vacated in 1999 may look like a drain on mall finances. But Richman said the grocery chain is still paying on a long-term lease.

A survey of mall tenants showed overall sales fell about 5 percent in 2000 -- less of a downturn than feared, Richman said.

"Now, the belief is, the corner has been turned out there," he said.

JJ Gumberg's Kramer says the mall is doing everything possible to help tenants succeed, such as "small concessions" in rent.

The mall got a boost in January when J.C. Penney, an original tenant, announced a major renovation that will give the store two new departments -- housewares and custom decorating. Tenants hope the project will regenerate interest in the mall and draw shoppers and other retailers.

"We have to do something," said Penney's manager Jim Trocchio, who's seen sales drop 5 percent in the past 18 months.

Trocchio said he believes Penney's opted to stay at the mall because it saw little chance of adding significantly to its customer base by spending millions of dollars on a store in one of the other developments.

Richman said Washington Mall has the best location in the area, with interstate ramps funneling vehicles right to the property.

REX Stores Corp. of Dayton, Ohio, will open a 20,000-square-foot TV and appliance store in the former Pottery Factory Outlet, and D&K Stores Inc. of Oakhurst, N.J., is putting a 5,800-square-foot discount store next to Dollar General.

D&K President Robert Dweck said his company believes the mall is viable. No one wants to shop at a strip center in winter, he said, "unless you have a shovel."

It's been a rocky road for Richard Crompton, who gave up the Baskin-Robbins franchise.

Crompton, who's owned the shop for eight years, said the mall no longer provides the volume of business needed to finance the franchise. He found another ice cream supplier and renamed the shop Pap Pap's.

Janicki said she isn't selling enough pretzels to pay her $1,800-a-month rent. She said she's been dipping into personal finances to keep the pretzels baking and hopes to sell her equipment at the end of the month to pay bills.

Walk-in sales at Pastries by John are down about 40 percent over two years. Co-owner Joanne Smith said she had to seek business from hotels and caterers.

"Years ago, we would depend on mall walk-in business because it was phenomenal," Smith said. "And now we don't bank on any of that anymore."

Kevin's Kafe, inside Gift Basket by Ryan, closed after Christmas because of a lack of business.

April Ryan said she has attempted to offset declining sales at the Gift Basket by giving employees shorter hours. She's also changing the store's focus from collectibles to home decorating with furniture and a bigger floral department.

Magreni said he closed the Pottery Factory Outlet in February 1998 because of problems negotiating a new lease.

He said he was unable to find a buyer for Thompson Hardware and closed the store in June 1997 because of impending competition from Lowe's and other big retailers. Dollar General now leases the space.

Claire's Stores Inc. closed the "underperforming" Afterthoughts boutique at Washington Mall after acquiring the jewelry store chain in December 1999. Claire's shop at Washington Crown Center has "more potential," said Sharon Levi, the company's vice president of real estate.

After about 15 years in the mall, Amos Home Products relocated in October to Route 19 and Cameron Road in South Strabane. George Amos said sales at the mall fell 25 to 30 percent in two years.

"Is there a future?" he said of the mall.

Rod Altmeyer Sr. said he closed his bed, bath and home store two years ago because sales were down and employees were difficult to find in what was then a booming economy. Also, he said the store, smaller than most Altmeyer locations, was unnecessary with his company's presence in Bridgeville, Allegheny County, and St. Clairsville, Ohio.

In all now, Washington Mall has 20,000 square feet available for regular retail leasing, plus the former Giant Eagle and the 24,000-square-foot Carmike Cinemas, Kramer said.

Carmike closed its Washington 8 theater March 15 because "operations were not meeting expectations," company spokeswoman Suzanne Brown said.

The theater, in a detached building, was competing against Hollywood Theaters at Washington Crown Center. Brown said the company's bankruptcy case enables it to escape leases, but Richman said a previous tenant may be bound by the lease with the mall.

Washington Mall's story must be put into context, said Donna Camerson, Lang's president.

Super-retailers such as Wal-Mart have taken huge chunks of the retail industry, squeezing many smaller and medium-sized retailers, she said. Also, she said busy lifestyles have affected the retail industry.

"People don't have time to peruse malls anymore," she said.

There was a time when Janicki was so busy with customers she had to do her bookkeeping at home. The memory is like pretzel salt in a wound.

Now, she takes novels to work and reads one after another while waiting for her lease to expire.

"There's nothing else to do," she said.

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