Uncertainty hangs over the 'central hub of Seminole'
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
SEMINOLE -- Seminole Mall has never been the type of regional mall that houses anchor stores such as Burdines or JCPenney.
It's a community mall where locals pick up a prescription at Eckerd Drugs, retirees take early morning walks along the corridors, and loyal customers shop at mom-and-pop businesses.
And that's what makes the mall special, says Santo Sardo, owner of Sardo's Pizzeria in the mall's food court.
"What people don't realize is this is the central hub of Seminole," Sardo said Wednesday during a break from the lunch crowd. "I just hope the new owners come in here and realize what a great place they have."
Who the new owner is remains a mystery. The mall merchants received a letter last week stating the property was under contract to be sold, but there was no mention of a buyer. Larry Lang, executive vice president and asset manager for Lamar Cos., which has owned the mall since 1998, did not return phone calls.
So the merchants wait and wonder. "They don't say anything to us," said Aaron Belcher, store manager of Arden's Medical Equipment, which has leased space in Seminole Mall for 15 years. "I don't know what's going on, but I hope it's good."
The news of the sale came last week, the same week Westfield America Trust, Australia's largest property trust, announced it had purchased Countryside Mall in Clearwater, Brandon TownCenter in Brandon and Citrus Park Mall in Hillsborough County. Catharine Dickey, spokeswoman for Westfield, said Seminole Mall was not listed among the three malls Westfield bought.
Also last week, Clearwater Mall announced it would close Feb. 1. It will be torn down, and a new shopping center will be built in its place.
City Manager Frank Edmunds said he doesn't have any information on the sale of the mall. "It's unusual that there appears to be a desire to keep the new mall ownership private at the present time," he said.
Even Jimmy Johnson, whose job as executive director of the Greater Seminole Area Chamber of Commerce keeps him abreast of business news in the community, said he doesn't know anything about the sale.
"This early you can't really tell what's going to happen, but it could turn into a very positive thing with new owners and new promotion," Johnson said. "I do think that Seminole Mall is well received in our community. It has survived, unlike Gateway (in St. Petersburg), Sunshine (in Clearwater) and Clearwater malls. I think that is indicative of a lot of community support."
Retirees Clare Lukas and Kathy Young have been shopping at Seminole Mall since its early years in the 1970s. Both women say they visit the mall once or twice a week. Last Wednesday, they ate lunch at the food court.
"I hope we don't have any more closings," said Mrs. Lukas, 74, looking at the empty space left by Waccamaw's HomePlace when it closed last summer.
When told the merchants had received notice the mall had been sold, both women said they hope the shopping center doesn't change. "This is like the country store," Mrs. Lukas said. "It's comfortable."
"Comfortable, that's the word," agreed Mrs. Young, 63.
Merchants at Seminole Mall, including Sardo, hope the new owner understands the mall isn't just a shopping center but also a community gathering place, where activities like twice-a-week afternoon music have made it a popular hangout. Without a downtown in Seminole, the mall with its hometown feel functions like a Main Street for the city.
Years ago a nursery was on the northeast corner of 113th Street and Park Boulevard, where the mall now sits. A single strip of stores, including a grocery and cafeteria, occupied the land before the mall was built.
When it opened in 1970, Seminole Mall became the largest air-conditioned mall in Pinellas County. Today, Countryside Mall in Clearwater and Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg dwarf Seminole Mall.
It was owned by the family of Seminole pioneer Jesse Johnson until it was sold in 1998 for $17-million to Lamar. The city was founded at the mall during a meeting in 1970. On a wall in the food court rests a bronze plaque that proclaims it was on this spot that the city of Seminole was born on Nov. 15, 1970.
Lamar, based in Morristown, N.J., is considered a turnaround specialist that buys struggling shopping centers and revives them with renovations and new merchants. The 400,000-square-foot mall had about 40,000 square feet of vacant space when Lamar bought it in 1998. Today Seminole Mall is remodeled and close to full, except for the large void left by Waccamaw's and some smaller vacancies.
But many of the merchants say the mall lost its community feel when an out-of-town company bought the property. They say Lamar wants the shopping center to compete with the bigger area malls, something they say is a mistake. And they're not happy they've been left in the dark about the impending sale.
Will the mall remain a shopping center? If so, what type of changes can merchants and shoppers expect? Will the new owner try and recruit a major department store such as Sears or one of the popular retailers like the Gap that traditionally serve as a big draw for a mall?
The merchants would love a major department store to fill the vacancy left by Waccamaw's. The rumor that a Ross Dress for Less will fill the space has been circulating for months.
Attracting younger patrons to the mall has been an uphill battle since Seminole Mall opened. In 1977, the mall underwent a $400,000 expansion project so new stores could attract younger shoppers. Two more remodeling projects came in 1986 and 1991.
Today the mall's anchor stores include a Stein Mart and a Beall's Department Store, which both sell clothes, shoes and housewares; Kmart, whose future is uncertain; and Publix, a grocery store.
Sardo, the pizzeria owner and a former president of the Mall Merchants Association, said he would like to see Seminole Mall return to the days when school choirs gave benefit concerts there. Since Lamar took over, he said, it has become too expensive for community and school groups to host events at the mall.
"It's always been a community mall, but that doesn't mean it can't be a thriving mall," Sardo said.
-- Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Sharon Bond contributed to this report.
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