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One "definite potential purchaser" for the Summit Park Mall has come forward as four Niagara County officials made final plans Friday to fly to Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday to discuss the mall's future with its owner.

The name of the potential buyer is being kept secret until after the meeting with mall owner Haywood Whichard, said John R. Simon, executive director of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency, one of the four making the trip.

Simon said the IDA has contacted more than 50 firms in North America and Europe who are in the business of buying malls and told them about the 600,000-square-foot property.

"We're in the driver's seat because we have a number of proposals to make the mall more marketable," said Wheatfield Supervisor Timothy E. Demler, who is leading the delegation to Raleigh. "We know he wants to sell the mall and make a quick profit."

The North Carolina real estate investor bought the mall last year for a bargain basement price of $3.3 million -- about 13 times less than its original assessed value.

Ever since losing Jenss, one of the three original anchor stores, two years ago, businesses have been steadily left the Williams Road mall, leaving it about two-thirds empty, Demler said.

Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, also is going to Raleigh, as is Wheatfield Town Attorney Robert O'Toole.

The group wants to turn the mall into a mixed-use facility, with a retail base and possibly housing some county departments.

Meanwhile, a settlement was reached this week that reduces the mall's property assessment from about $10 million to $5.2 million.

O'Toole said a pretrial conference in State Supreme Court resulted in an agreement between the town, the Niagara-Wheatfield Central School District and the mall's former owners.

Appraiser Anthony P. Girasole, who was hired by the board to determine the mall's property value, said the complex, built in 1972, is not keeping pace with the times. The mall originally was appraised at $17 million.

"Malls of that age and design are falling out of favor with consumers," he said. "After 30 years, a point is reached to either invest or find another use."

His example was the AppleTree Mall in Cheektowaga, which was converted to offices, while the Thruway Mall took on "a modern configuration" as more of a strip plaza.

Connecticut General Insurance Co. -- now known as Cigna Corp. -- filed last year to reduce the mall's assessment for the taxing years of 1999 and 2000.

Town Assessor Gerald Maertin said the mall had been assessed at $9,996,000 and covers six parcels, including the original mall and surrounding land as well as the later additions.

However, the Toys 'R' Us building was included in the 2000 reduction, Maertin said. Whichard had sold the store to Oberlin Plaza II of North Carolina for $1.1 million the same day he bought the mall.

The Sears store is owned by its company and was not part of the petition.

A separate agreement reduced the assessment of the former Jenss Department store from $1 million to $615,000 -- an action sought by owner Jenwill Realty.

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