As optimism from local leaders grow following purchase, questions about future of Charleston Town Center remain

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Local leaders in Charleston from the tourism industry to the real estate industry all seem to share the feeling of optimism for the Charleston Town Center Mall following an announced buyer on Monday, but they also continue to have questions about the future.

No details of the transactions for the struggling property were not immediately disclosed by the city or Georgia based Hull Property Group when the announcement was first made on MetroNews affiliate 580-WCHS in Charleston that the group acquired the mall.

Howard Swint, a commercial property broker in the Charleston area told MetroNews that it sounds like a wonderful opportunity on the face of it but is curious of figures as the commercial retail sector of the economy is “already saturated.”

“We have a declining population and we have 400,000 square feet of new retail coming to the regional economy in South Charleston. They have to reposition the entire property in my estimation. We are curious to see if it will in fact a destination to bring in money from outside the regional economy,” he said.

Howard Swint

Swint said new owners must create opportunities and foot traffic to the property that has lost anchor stores of Macy’s and Sears in recent years. It has one anchor store left in JCPenney.

Other stories closing recently include Chico’s, Talbots, Victoria’s Secret, Sephora, several restaurants in the food court, Shipwreck Collection Market, and Christopher and Banks.

“That’s the mother’s milk for retail in any economy,” Swint said of foot traffic. “You have to bring folks into the building and into the storefront. It’s a matter of repositioning the entire property into a destination attraction that will bring folks in from outside.”

Jim Hull, the Owner and Managing Principal of the Hull Property Group expressed excitement about the move on Monday and did not shy away from the idea of repurposing the facility.

During his interview on 580-WCHS, Mull gave an example of bifurcating a property with a mall his group purchased in Kingston, New York. He said there was visual separation between a $30 million health center on the property and the retail, which attracted a 180,000 square foot big box user.

“The Charleston Town Center can and should continue to be a viable shopping and dining destination,” Hull said in a statement. “Our goal is to reposition Charleston Town Center by working with Charleston leaders and downtown property owners to create a successful future for not only the mall but the entire downtown area. The first step is to address the exit of national retailers from downtown Charleston while we work together to develop the path forward.”

The Hull Property Group will now own 33 malls in 16 states including Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Texas.

The group began in 1977 under Hull and is based in Augusta, Georgia. Hull said in the interview that his company “is in the mall business and has hardly ever sold a mall once purchased.”

He said he wants the mall to be part of a successful downtown Charleston which has Chuck Hamsher, co-owner of the Purple Moon in downtown in the line of support.

Hamsher told MetroNews the 933,000 square foot Town Center dictates the successes of downtown and beyond.

“The struggle they have had over there has been long and hard and it sounds like this group that purchased it has a great track record with doing these. We are really excited, we think it’s going to be a really good thing for the city,” he said.

“I’m a firm believer that a rising tide raises all ships in the city. What’s good for downtown, is good for the mall is good for Elk City, and is good for the East End and all over Charleston.”

Tim Brady, the CEO of Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) shared similar feelings to MetroNews, calling the mall the “anchor” of downtown Charleston. He said the CVB has a vested interest in the property because it’s across the street from the remodeled Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center and the city’s largest hotel in the Town Center Marriott.

Tim Brady

“It is the direct link between that Coliseum crowd and the downtown crowd such as Capitol, Hale and Corrier Streets. The mall is the gateway to that. A successful mall means that you have that direct corridor into downtown,” Brady said.

Company officials said in a statement late Monday that the Hull Property Group has “a consistent record of property redevelopment and improvement and demonstrated commitment to providing new investment capital and building strong community relationships to foster economic development.”

“The decline of this property did not occur overnight, and it will not be fixed overnight. Regional malls across the country are struggling with the new realities of retail – changing shopping patterns, the rise of internet sales and simply too much space and too few tenants,” said John Mulherin, vice president of government relations.

“We must be adaptable and there are many ways to creatively reconfigure properties to accommodate retail, commercial, civic, hospitality and other type uses. We look forward to getting to know the downtown Charleston area better and being the good stewards this important property needs.”

Swint admitted that the trajectory of the mall before the purchase was on the path to closure, which would have crushed property values of surrounding areas. U.S. Bank Association bought the mall during a January 2019 public auction. The former owners defaulted on a $93 million loan in late 2017, and the banking group filed a lawsuit to put the mall into receivership. The mall had been for sale for several months.

Conventional malls throughout the country are facing the same issues as the Town Center even in high economic and population increased areas, Swint said.

He added he is hopeful the new ownership group has existing corporate relationships to bring back retailers to the mall. He also said he has a big idea of something other than retail for the property that community members share with him.

“The hope is the city, county, state, and the federal government will be willing partners in an aquatic center in the Macys building. That’s a personal bias that we in the community have been pressing for quite some time,” Swint said.

Brady and Hamsher said they were impressed with the background of the Hull Property Group with how they do not come into places with a standard box idea and reinvent spaces.

And while both don’t know what will be made of the property in the coming months, both are confident in the stable ground now felt in downtown.

“I don’t know what the answer is with the mall. But what I do know is some really smart people who are in that business and want to make money in that business have come in and purchased the property. I’m going to leave that to them,” Brady said.

“My organization is focused on bringing in people to Charleston to take advantage of what they do with the property.”