Stores at Chapel Hill Mall were warned this week that Ohio Edison could shut off their power within days.
After businesses in the distressed Akron mall said they got a letter from Ohio Edison saying power could be shut off next week, the mall’s owner on Tuesday said the electric bill will be paid, perhaps later Tuesday.
Power has been shut off temporarily at other mall properties that also are owned by Kohan Retail Investment Group, which is run by Michael Kohan.
Regarding the late electric bill at Chapel Hill Mall, “it was just overlooked. It was nothing to worry about,” Kohan said. “We are going to pay it probably by today [Tuesday]. All is going to be good.”
The letter sent from Ohio Edison to mall tenants, dated April 1, reads: “This notice is to inform you that you may experience an interruption of your electric service at 7:00 a.m., April 8, 2019 for an indefinite period of time as Ohio Edison has not received payment on the electric service. … Ohio Edison regrets any inconvenience this may cause.”
The letter directs tenants to contact mall management or the electric utility.
FirstEnergy Corp. confirmed that its Ohio Edison subsidiary sent out the letters to mall tenants because mall management was behind on electric payments. The Akron utility did not say how much money it is owed.
The letters were a courtesy to the businesses, not a regulatory requirement, so that the businesses could make preparations if the power is shut off, a utility spokesman said. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, the spokesman said payment had not been received.
Ellen Lander Nischt, spokeswoman for the city of Akron, said this is the second time this year that Mayor Dan Horrigan's administration has been notified of a pending electric shutoff because of nonpayment.
"We are confident that any disruption in service will be avoided with appropriate payment being made," Nischt said Tuesday. "Mayor Horrigan and his economic development and planning staff have repeatedly commented that Chapel Hill Mall and the surrounding corridor remain a stable hub for retail not only for Akron, but Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge as well.
"Given the flexible zoning and ideal location, the future success of the mall is limited only by the creativity and commitment of the ownership to reinvent the space to meet evolving trends."
By 11 a.m. Tuesday, chain-link curtains still covered a handful of storefronts with signs that said "be back in 20 minutes." More than 60 percent of the smaller retail space is now empty.
A row of 10 empty stores dead-ends into the shuttered Macy's department store, which is filled with storage lockers. A sign in vibrant colors, surrounded by notices for available space, reads: "Did you hear? Chapel Hill Mall is not closing!"
The sign has given little comfort to shop owners and workers who keep the mall open. Workers on Tuesday checked their Facebook to read the latest gossip on the unpaid electric bill. "Everybody knows about it," said one worker, who did not have the permission of her employer to speak.
"I don't know what happens next," said a store manager, who asked not to be named to avoid retaliation from his landlord and employer. "I have no idea how backed up the bills go."
Kohan Retail Investment Group, which is based in Great Neck, N.Y., and specializes in buying distressed malls, paid $8.6 million for Chapel Hill Mall in July 2016. Since then, the company has acquired at least 14 other distressed malls.
Its 720,000-square-foot Berkshire Mall in Massachusetts temporarily closed last month after power was shut off for nonpayment on the property’s electric bill. Kohan was quoted in news stories saying the nonpayment involved issues with the electric utility over a meter issue.
“Our bills are so high and we have so few stores,” Kohan told the Berkshire Eagle newspaper.
Kohan goes by other names, including Mehran Kohansieh, Mike Kohansjeh and Mike Kohen, according to court documents.
News reports show several other of the 30 properties currently listed on the company’s website have run into recent difficulties meeting their financial obligations on time:
• In January, water and sewer bills were partially paid just in time to delay the auction of Lycoming Mall in Pennsdale, Pa. An unpaid electric bill there also caused an August electric shutoff.
• Southbridge Mall in Mason City, Iowa, is scheduled for tax auction in June.
• At least $3.1 million is owed in taxes at the Great Northern Mall in Clay, N.Y., with a tax auction looming in 2021 if the debt is not resolved.
• Unpaid bills were resolved in time to prevent the October tax auction of Washington Square Mall in Indianapolis.
• Water was cut off early last year at The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Mich., because of unpaid bills.
• An overdue electric bill was paid just in time to keep the lights on in December 2017 at Indian River Mall in Vero Beach, Fla.
• Utilities were disconnected in 2012 at Village Square Mall in Effingham, Ill., because of unpaid bills.
Two other malls that are no longer listed as Kohan properties also had problems while under his ownership.
Electricity was shut off in February 2015 at Rotterdam Square Mall in Schenectady, N.Y. That mall is under new ownership and has been renamed Viaport Rotterdam.
A 2012 temporary closure resulting from unpaid gas bills preceded the 2014 permanent closure of Jamestown Mall in Florrisant, Mo.
Chapel Hill Mall in recent years lost two of its three anchors, Sears and Macy’s, leaving J.C. Penney as the sole large retailer. Other smaller stores have also left, leaving numerous vacancies in the once-thriving mall.
As of Tuesday, there were 43 empty storefronts and 26 filled storefronts, plus food court businesses and kiosks.
"Unfortunately, there seems to be more walkers than shoppers," said Mike Warner, 63, a lifelong Akron resident who's been walking the mall for exercise this past week.
"I couldn't believe how many stores were closed when we showed up this morning," said Tricia Claar, 35. She and Frank Flack, 38, decided to shop for cheap children's shoes on their day off work while the kids are in school. It had been years since the couple last visited the mall, which they frequented as teenagers growing up in Green and South Akron. Chapel Hill Mall drew them in to mingle with friends before Facebook and online shopping replaced what Flack fondly remembered as a place of "social intervention."
"We've actually come here for years, ever since we were kids. And we've seen all the changes," Flack said. "We used to be here every weekend ... [Now] even the security office is closed. There's nothing left open to steal."
Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Doug Livingston at email@example.com or 330-996-3792.