Dan O’Connor knew it was a risk to buy the former Sears store attached to a closed mall in 2012, but it’s turned out to be a good bet.
In 2012, the president of Pinnacle Recycling moved his 2-year-old commercial paper and plastic recycling business from a site in Barberton to the Sears, which closed in 2011. Sears was the second-to-last retail holdout at Rolling Acres Mall, which closed in 2008 when electricity was about to be shut off for nonpayment. In 2011, a man was electrocuted while trying to steal copper.
“We were so nervous,” O’Connor said this week, of his purchase. “But we knew this was the best move for us.”
Now, O’Connor said business is booming for his firm, which takes material from other companies and recycles it into raw materials to resell.
O’Connor is among five private owners of the former department stores attached to the long-vacant Rolling Acres Mall. Four of the five owners bought their properties after the retailers moved out and the mall closed; J.C. Penney continues to own its vacant building.
On June 24, the city of Akron became the owner of the interior of the mall and some acreage outside. In total, the city now owns 277,000 square feet of building and 54 acres, according to Akron Service Director John Moore.
The city became the owner after Summit County Fiscal Officer Kristen Scalise’s office successfully foreclosed on the California-based Premier Ventures after eight years of legal maneuvering. Premier owed more than $1.3 million in back taxes and had not paid its taxes since purchasing the mall in 2010 from the previous owner, who was also behind on taxes.
The county foreclosure wiped away the $1.3 million in back taxes, and the city will bear the costs of demolishing the mall. Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan toured Rolling Acres for the first time on Wednesday with the Beacon Journal and said the “apocalyptic feel” confirmed that the mall was unsafe and needed to be demolished as soon as possible. The mayor said it was a good and rare opportunity to have such a large plot of land to find developers to rebuild.
The interior of the mall is littered with shards of glass, tires, growing trees and algae in addition to the mall having long been stripped of its copper and heating and air conditioning units.
“It’s really just a shell of eroding masonry work,” O’Connor said of the mall.
O’Connor and the other private owners of the department stores have tried in vain to keep vandals and thrill-seekers out of the mall. Each of them have blocked off their own interior entrances to the mall, either with concrete, paneling or other methods.
Because the last owner of the interior of the mall was in California and not present, the department store owners said they often took it upon themselves to board up the general mall entrances.
“They just rip them down,” O’Connor said of the trespassers. He added that last week, one of his employees saw three teenagers go in with knapsacks.
John Grimm, who is in charge of maintenance for Storage of America, a drive-thru storage facility in the former Target at the mall, said he saw a couple walk into the mall on Tuesday holding a blow-up Orca whale.
O’Connor said: “It’s very strange the allure why people think they want to go in there.
“The threat is constant, not only for ourselves if someone is going to start a fire or get killed in there,” he said.
O’Connor said he and other owners have been frustrated that Akron police have not been more vigilant about arresting trespassers. City officials on Wednesday said there were limits in what the police could do because the mall was private property. But the city owns it now and will be securing and patrolling the facility, said Charles Brown, deputy mayor for public safety.
Another bustling business at the site of the dead mall is the Storage of America.
Owner Rob Walker said his 593 storage units — which range from 5 feet by 5 feet to 12 feet by 40 feet — are 95 percent full.
“We love Akron. We’re really happy with the investment,” said Walker, who lives in Utah, but who does business in three states. Akron is the only Ohio location.
Walker said his business has had no problems with vandals recently, though all of its heating and air conditioning units were stolen in 2011, just as he was ready to open. He spent $300,000 to replace them and he’s had to remove hundreds of tires that people have dumped there.
Walker’s business buys former big-box retail, so when the former Target building came up for sale, he bought it in 2010 and opened in 2011.
Because the former Target is tucked behind the mall, Walker also bought the former KeyBank building on Romig Road in 2013 to use as a front office for clients.
“We’ve taken two dead buildings and brought them back to life,” said William Bennett, an Akron native who is Walker’s general manager at Rolling Acres.
Bennett and Walker, along with other department store owners, said they’d be in favor of the city redeveloping the site into a light industrial or manufacturing hub. The land was rezoned industrial several years ago.
A group of Chinese investors has been in touch with the county and city about their interest in redeveloping the mall into a light-industrial hub.
Eric Tran, managing partner of the group, said in emails that the group conceptualizes development, arranges financial commitments both local and overseas and then works with local developers for the actual work.
“As foreign investors, we are always looking at opportunities with government involvement or backing,” said Tran, who said he plans to travel to Akron in August to meet with city officials. “We don’t know yet what kind of redevelopment we would do for the Rolling Acres Mall.... One thing is for sure. We will not go into this project alone. We know our limit.”
Horrigan said the city will look at all possibilities — however, he said he was not in favor of a penitentiary, which Tran told a reporter was among the group’s initial ideas.
Walker, the owner of the former Target, said of the penitentiary idea: “They certainly need to go somewhere. I’m not sure I want to be attached to it. But on the other hand, clearly they’d have high security.”
Walker and O’Connor said with their bustling businesses, they are not interested in selling.
O’Connor estimates he has spent $1 million on improvements and equipment, including recently filling potholes in the exterior road.
O’Connor said he may be interested in leasing or buying more space, if there is redevelopment.
Larry Jenco, owner of the former Dillard’s store, which he uses for storage, said he’s also not interested in selling. But he’s “tickled pink” that the city now owns the mall and is anxious for the city to redevelop it.
J.C. Penney spokeswoman Daphne Avila confirmed in an email that the retailer still owned the property. The J.C. Penney Outlet closed in 2011, and J.C.’s 5-Star Outlet — which was owned by a private equity firm — stayed open until 2013.
“Now that the property is in the hands of the city, it is the company’s intention to work closely with local officials on a plan that will enable them to bring productive development and new opportunities to the city of Akron,” Avila said.
The owner of the former Macy’s, which is being used for storage for his company, did not return a call seeking comment.
Hal LaPine of Gates Mills, another owner of adjacent property to the mall, is anxious for some redevelopment. He bought 30 acres of vacant land along Harlem Road to the west of the mall in 2008.
“I bought it hoping something would happen,” he said. His land is for sale for $700,000.
“He can only benefit by the future of whatever the city decides to do,” said David Kaplan of Hoff & Leigh, LaPine’s real estate broker.
Former tenants speak
Eli Choueiry was among the last mall tenants to leave as the electricity was being cut in 2008. Choueiry was a food-court vendor and owner of Eli’s Char Grill and Big Star Pizza for 24 years at the mall.
When reached by phone at his new location, Big Star Pizza in Copley near the Copley Circle, Choueiry said the abandoned mall looked like a forest when he saw photos.
“I’m happy to be out,” he said. “My business is booming. I should have [moved] a long time ago.”
Rick Diamond, owner of Diamond’s Men Stores, also a longtime tenant and one of the last ones to leave, relocated his store to a strip mall in front of the former mall on Romig Road. Business at the Diamond’s Outlet store has been steadily increasing, but is “not a fraction of what it was when we were in the mall. It seems to have bottomed out and is more on the upswing.”
Bennett, the manager of the storage facility, said he’s seen traffic increase on Romig Road recently.
Diamond said any redevelopment by the city of the former mall will be good for his business and the corridor.
“Listen, anything would be good. I don’t know how things can get much worse than it is,” he said. “We just need more traffic.”
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or email@example.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.