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The almost-deserted Summit Park Mall is no longer for sale as the new owner makes a commitment to "reinvigorate it like never before," Niagara County officials said Wednesday.

Four county officials bent on saving the mall returned from a meeting with owner Haywood Whichard in Raleigh, N.C., with encouraging words.

"The Summit Park Mall will no longer be . . . for sale," Wheatfield Supervisor Timothy E. Demler, who led the delegation to Raleigh, said at a news conference. "The mall will be renewed and reinvigorated like never before."

Contacted at his North Carolina home after the news conference, Whichard confirmed the optimism of county officials, using many of the same words.

"We will try to reinvigorate and restore that mall," Whichard said. "We have prospective tenants, and we're shooting to fill the mall up."

Whichard is the mall's third owner in four years. He bought it in March for $3.3 million, considered a bargain for a property that was assessed at almost $17 million when it was built in 1972.

The assessed value has been lowered several times, the latest last week, to $5.2 million, said Wheatfield Town Attorney Robert O'Toole, who also went to Raleigh. The mall is only about one-third full, Demler said.

"The team effort we showed the owners indicated to them what this community is all about," said delegation member Charles P. Steiner, president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce. "They are energized because of our energy."

Demler said Whichard and his associates were unaware of many of the problems facing the mall and of the potential of the surrounding area, including the widening of Williams Road and the pending development of Niagara Falls International Airport.

"The owners now realize there is an opportunity here and it's in their interest to turn the mall around," said John R. Simon, executive director of the Niagara County Industrial Development Agency, who also went to Raleigh. "I see a re-energized ownership, but we still need to be vigilant to make sure they execute this new commitment."

Before the Raleigh meeting, local officials were so disappointed with the owner's apparent uninterest in developing the mall that they were desperately seeking a buyer.

The county development agency contacted more than 50 firms in North America and Europe that are in the mall-buying business. Even as the county officials were booking seats on a 6 a.m. Tuesday flight, "one definite potential purchaser" had come forward, Simon said.

Sale plans are now on hold, Demler said.

The sprawling mall, once the busiest in Niagara County and still the biggest at almost 700,000 square feet, has been losing stores steadily over the years, the largest being Jenss, one of the three original anchor stores, which moved out in 1998.

The main thrust of the meeting was to get a commitment from Whichard to protect the 400 jobs at the mall and to bring in new stores, Demler said.

"Our trip to North Carolina was a success, and changes at the mall begin today," Demler said.

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