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Silent nights, days at Clearwater Mall

A dearth of stores and a murky future lure shoppers elsewhere.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Santa Claus sits daily on his throne at Clearwater Mall, waiting to hear who has been naughty and who has been nice. But no line of kids awaits the jolly old elf.

In fact, one evening last week there weren't any kids. Santa was reduced to robustly wishing the few people who passed by him a merry Christmas.

Clearwater resident Frank Vitarelli said he would prefer to take his toddler to see the busy Santa at Countryside Mall.

"This mall is not very lively," said Vitarelli, who had dinner with his girlfriend at one of three tables in the food court that were occupied that night.

"This is the biggest shopping week of the season, and just look at it."

'Tis the season to max out your credit card, but at Clearwater Mall, about half the storefronts are vacant, marred by roll-down metal gates.

Two of the mall's anchors, Gayfers and Dillard's, have long since departed, and Burdines, with clearance sales ongoing, now expects to close by late January. That will leave only Wards. Recently the mall's movie theater also closed.

Holiday standards like Jingle Bell Rock blare over the sound system of the eerily empty mall as the remaining merchants press doggedly forward with generous Christmas sales.

Some remaining store owners concede that this could be their grinchiest Christmas season yet -- thanks to the droves of tenants that have left the mall and bad publicity generated by on-again, off-again, and now maybe on-again redevelopment plans over the past two years.

Gloria Jean's Gourmet Coffee shop, for instance, is only really busy in the mornings, when other employees who work in the mall come by for an early cup of coffee, store clerks say.

Gus Mir, owner of the Chick Fil-A across the mall's food court, is similarly grim.

"The lack of retailers is really hurting the mall," said Mir, who survives thanks to a booming take-out lunch business and a void of other Chick-fil-A shops along that stretch of U.S. 19.

"We were told in April they were going to invite new exciting retailers in by the holiday season," Mir said. "But there's still not a retail mix that's going to attract a lot of shoppers."

Side by side with shops like Express and Paul Harris, the mall now contains telemarketing firms, a dance school and the local Democratic Party's recent campaign 2000 headquarters -- temporary tenants that needed space while the mall needed rent.

Jim Mathers, a Clearwater resident, has grown his telemarketing company, Consumer Energy Solutions, at the mall. He now leases three storefronts for 100 employees. His company contacts residents up north to see if they want to switch energy companies.

"For us, the mall's been a perfect thing," with plenty of parking and restaurants nearby, Mathers said.

Meanwhile, some retail tenants at the mall are taking matters into their own hands to ensure they survive.

Retailers have been charged thousands of dollars in the past to pay for marketing. But Mike Bieluwka, who started the Tee to Green Golf shop, decided to air his own commercial recently on Time Warner cable channels to publicize the mall was open.

More important, Bieluwka's commercial pointed out, his store was a great place to buy Christmas gifts for avid golfers, from golf outfits to custom-made clubs.

"We're generating our own traffic," Bieluwka said, "and we're doing fairly well, considering. I think the mall needs a little bit more advertising and a more consistent effort to bring anchor stores back in."

At A Sports City, owner Claire Hoehler said her sports memorabilia business was doing fine thanks to a loyal customer base.

"The only thing we know is that the mall is still standing, and open," Hoehler said. "I feel there's still a good selection of stores, a little bit everything. And if you want shoes, we have Wards and Burdines."

The other two shoe stores at the mall have closed -- along with other mall staples like the Gap, Victoria's Secret, Body Shop, Candleman, Bombay Company and Pretzel Twister. Claire's Boutique, an accessory store, has been converted to an antique store for Christmas.

Still, Sam Wan, the manager of Curve Furniture, said it was the closing of the anchors that really hurt his business.

"Now it's a good store, bad location," Wan said. "If management would do something to make it better, we would stay here."

The mall's owner, a real estate investment fund called New Plan Excel Realty Trust, which owns a portfolio of about $3-billion in assets, puts a happier spin on things.

Stacy Lipschitz, New Plan's corporate communications director, said that the mall continues to search for tenants during the holiday season and until future redevelopment plans are announced.

The real estate conglomerate also recently acquired Burdines' 10.4-acre store and parking lot, the last piece of land that New Plan needed to control 100 percent of the mall site, Lipschitz said. New Plan paid about $4.8-million for the acquisition, records show.

"We now control 100 percent of the 70-acre mall site," Lipschitz said.

So what is New Plan going to do with it?

Glenn Rufrano, the chief executive and president of New Plan, told Wall Street investors in a November conference call that the company has decided it doesn't want to be the primary developer of the mall site.

New Plan is negotiating with several new joint-venture partners to redevelop the property -- with an announcement of the mall's fate expected early next year, Rufrano revealed.

A previous redevelopment proposal collapsed earlier this year. It would have transformed the mall into a "power center" with a string of big-box stores like Home Depot or Target.

The company involved with the failed deal, Wilton Partners, relinquished all rights to the mall project in early October. New Plan declined to release more details.

While redevelopment plans were in flux, New Plan's Internet site indicates that from Jan. 1, 1999, to Sept. 30, 2000, the mall cost the real estate trust about $1.6-million in lost revenues.

To recoup lost funds, New Plan has filed lawsuits against 18 former mall tenants who stopped paying rent and abandoned their storefronts in mid lease, court records show.

The lawsuits seek to force the tenants to pay the rent New Plan's attorneys argue it was due. The company declined to comment on legal matters.

In their defense, some of the retailers have claimed that the mall's management broke agreements with them to market the mall properly and keep its anchor department stores intact -- forcing them to abandon the mall.

Merchants who remain don't know what will happen next. Some worry about the departure of Burdines after Christmas.

Carey Watson, Burdines' Miami-based senior vice president for marketing, said that all of the store's 100 associates who want jobs have been placed at other area Burdines stores. Many will move to a new Burdines furniture gallery slated to open early next year near the flourishing Countryside Mall.

Another attraction of Clearwater Mall, the Florida World Museum of Natural History, also expects to close by this week, museum founder Trudy Smida said.

After displaying fossils and other exhibits for several years, in an effort to jump-start a new local museum, Smida said that the group's exhibits are being returned to their owners, and it's not certain whether the museum can reopen at another location in the future.

"It's just hard to start something like this and get it off the ground," Smida said.

In a bit of good news for the mall, however, the remaining anchor, Wards, intends to stay open and become part of any redevelopment of the mall, said Wards' Chicago-based spokesman Chuck Knittle.

Burdines is also interested in building another furniture gallery at the Clearwater Mall site someday, Watson said.

Until any such redevelopment occurs, the mall's management is offering free gift wrapping as a thanks to customers this holiday season. An added bonus: There may not be a line.

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