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OFFICIALS TO PRESS MALL OWNER TO ATTRACT NEW TENANTS

Three Niagara County movers and shakers trying to save the moribund Summit Park Mall intend to fly to Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday to shake up the new owner.

"We're going to push for an aggressive marketing plan to bring in new tenants," said Wheatfield Supervisor Timothy E. Demler.

Demler will head the delegation, which also includes Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, and John R. Simon, executive director of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency.

Real estate investor Haywood Whichard, who bought the mall last year at the bargain price of $3.3 million -- the mall was originally assessed at close to $17 million -- said he will send a car to pick the men up at Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

During the "summit meeting" in Whichard's office a few miles away, the Niagara County officials will stress the importance of turning the mall back into a moneymaker, something it hasn't been since 1994, Demler said.

"We will state our intention to keep the Summit Park Mall a retail-commercial complex," said Demler, scotching a recent suggestion by two county legislators that the county buy the mall and pack it with county offices.

"We are not in favor of a county purchase, but possibly a co-use with some county departments to consolidate and save tax dollars," Demler said.

The main thrust of the meeting will be to get a commitment from Whichard to protect the 400 remaining jobs at the mall and to bring in new stores, he added.

But Whichard told The Buffalo News he just wants to sell the mall -- and soon.

"We made a quick deal up there," he said. "I'll sell it to anyone who makes me an offer."

Whichard is the mall's third owner in four years.

Once the busiest mall in Niagara County and, at almost 700,000 square feet, still the largest, the mall has had its occupancy sink to less than 30 percent, said Demler. Losing Jenss, one of the three original anchor stores, was the biggest blow. When occupancy fell below 50 percent last year, the assessed value of the mall was lowered to $13 million. When stores continued to leave, it was further reduced to $10 million. Now the Town Board is considering lowering it to a rock-bottom $3 million.

Demler wants to save the mall to keep existing jobs and bring in more tenants and employees, but he said its demise wouldn't affect the current prosperity of Wheatfield -- reportedly the fastest-growing town in Western New York.

"Wheatfield is doing so well that if the owner decided to bulldoze it tomorrow and take it off the tax rolls, the town's taxpayers would be insulated against any tax increase," he said.

The three-term supervisor has cut taxes in Wheatfield six years in a row.

A presummit meeting of Demler, Steiner and Simon, and other community leaders hoping to save the mall, will be held at 2 p.m. today in the IDA office, 2055 Niagara Falls Blvd.

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