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NEARLY EMPTY LOCKPORT MALL IS LOSER IN WAL-MART FIGHT
SHOPPING CENTER MAY CLOSE NEXT YEAR

Whether or not residents succeed in blocking a Wal-Mart supercenter, the Lockport Mall is already a casualty of the battle.

General Growth Properties of Chicago, the mall's owner, sees little future in the Lockport Mall, which has just nine stores left. There won't even be a Santa at the mall for Christmas. With General Growth letting tenants go and not signing new leases, it looks as if the shopping center may shut its doors some time next year.

"Wal-Mart was our best chance to improve the community," said Ed Pilarz, vice president for asset management. "There just aren't a lot of alternatives out there. It's not what we want to do. In our business, it's all customer based. It's all what people will lease."

General Growth wanted to sell the mall -- excluding Bon-Ton and some land -- to Wal-Mart. The Bon-Ton would remain as a stand-alone store. Wal-Mart would demolish the mall and build a supercenter to replace the existing Wal-Mart nearby on Transit Road. General Growth would assume Wal-Mart's lease on its old store and find a new tenant.

However, the town changed its commercial zoning laws, which made the Wal-Mart project more difficult. Wal-Mart withdrew its plans this fall and is reconsidering its options.

While General Growth hasn't made a decision, it's hard to imagine a scenario under which the mall would remain open. Of the nine businesses still there, Verizon Wireless, GNC and Regis Hair Salon have signed leases in a plaza across the street and will leave in the coming months. A fourth tenant, Rosa's Home Store, will close its Lockport location next year. That leaves Kay Jewelers, Radio Shack, Cutting Crew, Rex TV and Walden Books. The Cinema 8 movie theater is still operating.

Like in other places in the Buffalo Niagara region and around the country, some residents have been fighting the construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter. Residents are also protesting a Wal-Mart supercenter in Niagara Falls and a regular Wal-Mart in the Town of Lancaster.

"A lot of people really want the mall to stay because we don't have much retail here," said Margaret Magno, head of Citizens for Smart Growth, which opposes the Wal-Mart supercenter. "They could renovate the mall and see what would work. They have rehabbed some of these smaller malls."

Down the street, the Eastern Hills Mall enjoys a higher traffic location and some of the best demographics in the county when it comes to household income. But even that mall, in which new owners have invested several million dollars, is not fully leased.

The owners of the Summit Park Mall in Wheatfield are also struggling to fill the shopping center and are turning to nontraditional tenants, such as a town youth center.

When General Growth built the Lockport Mall more than 25 years ago, an enclosed shopping center anchored by department stores was what retailers wanted.

"All their criteria has changed," Pilarz said. "It's all about frontage and visibility."

There's good visibility from the road from the Bon-Ton to the former Ward's. However, that's a third of the mall. The rest of the stores aren't visible from Transit Road.

Magno says she understands that the only practical solution may be to demolish the mall. And she doesn't mind a big box retailer building on the site -- just not Wal-Mart and its supercenter.

"The mall is trying to convince us that it's Wal-Mart or nothing," Magno said. "That's just not true. That's one of the best corners in town. Someone will do a development there."

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com

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