Remaining Laurel Mall tenants frustrated by uncertainty

If you are wondering about the redevelopment of the Laurel Mall —when the mall will close, when demolition on its property will begin, how long its proposed transformation into the "Laurel Town Centre" will take — don't bother asking the owners of the few stores that are still open for business there.

They have no idea.

"The only information we get is what we see in the newspaper or what we hear on Fox News or what we hear from our customers," said Audrey Durr-Poole, owner of Gallery Imports, which sells African crafts, art and furniture in a space near the inner entrance toMacy's. "Nobody has communicated with us about anything."

Durr-Poole, who has operated her store in the mall for the last seven years, said mall owner Greenberg Gibbons Commercial has not been in touch at all with her or her fellow small business owners in the mall about its development plans, a lack of communication that has left them frustrated and uncertain what their next business move should be.

"It's unfair, because we are the internal customers. We pay rent here," Durr-Poole said. "Maybe they don't consider us. Maybe they just consider Burlington and Macy's. I guess they think they are the only ones here."

Customer traffic at the mall has long been dropping off. Already, the top floor is entirely vacant, except for a few eateries open in the food court. One of the main escalators is out of service. Empty store fronts are more common than filled ones. Tenants said there's no heat in the building.

Sounds made from the few customers still shopping on a recent afternoon echoed off the walls, the mall resembling a deserted warehouse more than the vibrant shopping hub it once was.

When Macy's Inc. announced earlier this month that it would be closing its store at the mall in coming weeks, traffic slowed even more.

Tom Fitzpatrick, Greenberg Gibbons' president and chief operating officer, said he understands tenants frustrations and wishes he had more information for them. But he also feels the company has been "pretty straight forward with everybody" about its overall plans to redevelop.

That details on the timing of that redevelopment are not available yet is just a function of the development process for a large-scale mall project, he said.

Such projects rely on "anchor stores" to get off the ground, he said. Currently, Greenberg Gibbons is in the process of securing deals with anchors for Laurel Town Centre, with two lined up already and negotiations underway with a third.

The company is also currently negotiating with Burlington Coat Factory, the Laurel Mall's last remaining anchor, over Burlington's lease on its current space, which is valid for another eight years.

"We're very close to finalizing and completing those private agreements, and hopefully, in the very near future, we'll be able to share more details," Fitzpatrick said.

"It's important because we don't announce projects or redevelopments until we have signed leases with our anchors in place," Fitzpatrick said. "You can't build a new redevelopment project without announcing who your anchors are. It defines what sort of project you are going to be."

He added: "I need to put together the deals so that I can move forward with the development, and at that point, I can announce the plans and the time line."

Fitzpatrick said he did not have any more details about when changes at the mall will begin.

Tenants think they deserve more information.

"They really haven't said anything to us. We've just been hearing bits and pieces from people in the mall," said Ali Shabazz, who has owned and operated Shabazz's Karate Jujitsu Academy on the mall's first floor for the last two years. "It's kind of up in the air in terms of how long do we have. Do they give us time to look for a place? We haven't heard anything like that from them."

Until November, Shabazz said, he had a year-long lease, but now his lease is month by month. He's currently looking around for another location to open business.

At the mall, "business is not moving at all," according to Bunmi Seriki, owner of Buyad House of Fashion, an African-inspired clothing store adjacent to Durr-Poole's store in the mall.

"It's very frustrating," Seriki said. "The people think there's nothing happening here. And we are wondering what is happening to us."

Seriki said when she opened her store in the mall in December 2010 — prior to Gibbons' takeover — previous mall management told her not to worry about a big shake up.

"Before I got this place, I said, 'Is this mall going to close?' And they said, 'No, nothing like that is going to happen,' " Seriki said.

Like Shabazz, Seriki used to have a year-long lease but now has a month-by-month lease. Business used to be brisk. Now, it's bumbling. She doesn't know what's going to happen at the mall, when she may be asked to leave, when she'll have to bundle up the homemade dresses she makes and set up shop in her Laurel home.

"We want them to call us, to talk to us about what is going to happen," she said of Greenberg Gibbons' leaders.

Pete Faletto, who has operated Value Tax 4 Inc. at the mall every tax season for the last 11 years, agreed.

Years ago, his communication with mall management was great, but in the last year, there has been "virtually none," Faletto said, and the local mall management seems to have no more answers than the store owners.

Faletto said he suspects the lack of communication may be the result of nobody at Gibbons knowing exactly what the time frame for changes at the mall are, either, but the company definitely needs to share whatever information they do have.

"Let me know. Contact me. If you are really interested in seeing to or taking care of the people who have been paying rent for the last many years, do it. Let me know what my options are," Faletto said. "Right now, we're in an abyss."

Faletto said the Laurel Mall, his business home for more than a decade, is "clearly a mall on its last legs, and it has been for a while."

Still, he said, "the uncertainty more than anything else is the problem."

Faletto said he has a lease through the end of April, when the tax season ends, but there is a clause in the lease that allows Greenberg Gibbons to kick him out with only five days notice, he said.

"I'm hoping they don't come in with a wrecking ball before then, because being in the tax business, that would destroy me," he said.

Fitzpatrick said Greenberg Gibbons will "give people appropriate time frames to make appropriate decisions" about their transition out of the mall when that time comes.

"We'll handle it professionally like everything we do as a company," he said.

On a recent afternoon at the mall, Durr-Poole was busy packing boxes and tying up loose ends. She's moving her store to Savage Mill, tired of the guessing game at the mall.

"There's no need for me to wait around thinking anything positive is going to happen to me, because it's not," she said of her business odds at the mall.

Other tenants said their plans are less settled. If they had more information, they might be able to make decisions. But all they seem to know is what's plastered in big lettering on the mall's walls.

"Don't judge a book by its cover," one wall reads. "Admit it. You love a good makeover. The amazing transformation begins. …"

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