It seemed business as usual at Leigh Mall on Monday.
For Evelyn Horne of Macon, manager for Burke’s Outlet, that meant another shift in a store that offered little relief from the Mississippi heat bearing down outside.
“I feel like they’ve let the mall go down to the point where something like this was going to happen,” Horne said of Leigh Mall owners, Louisiana-based Security National Properties. “They haven’t kept the place up — we haven’t had air conditioning all summer. When things break, they don’t fix them. The streets are terrible. There’s no security. Customers tell us they are afraid to come out here. By 7 (at night), the mall is empty. People just won’t come that late.”
Horne, like most store managers, employees and customers at Leigh Mall, have grown accustomed to the yellow “wet floor” signs scattered along the mall’s corridors heralding the leaky roof, the dozen or so vacant store spaces and the mall’s reputation of being in decline.
They didn’t learn until Sunday, from media coverage of a public sale notice printed in The Dispatch, that Security National Properties is in foreclosure for defaulting on a $34.7 million loan and that 27 properties put up as collateral on that loan — including Leigh Mall — are to be auctioned Dec. 4 at a law office in New York. What they still don’t know is how that auction will affect the individual stores that lease space at the mall.
“We haven’t heard anything at all,” said Horne, who has worked at Burke for 13 years. “What I’d like to know is what this means for the employees and myself. Where do we stand? Do you need to start looking for jobs? Are there other options for our store to relocate?
“I’ve had several customers mention it (Monday) morning,” she added. “They want to know what’s going to happen, but I really don’t know any more than they do. They like shopping here and they’ve been saying that maybe we can move to a new location if something happens here. I’m hoping that, too. Jobs are hard to find.”
If a new owner takes over Leigh Mall and Burke — along with stores like Hobby Lobby, Planet Fitness, Hibbett, Books-a-Million and others — get to stay, Horne is hopeful mall conditions will improve.
“I’ll be honest. It would just about have to be better than it is right now,” she said.
Prime real estate
An “anything is better than the status-quo” attitude seems to be the consensus among city leaders where Leigh Mall is concerned, and several have said they are hopeful an ownership change could help revitalize the troubled property.
“I think it would be great if somebody gets hold of it and does what needs to be done, which is a total remodel,” said Ward 5 Councilman Stephen Jones. “If somebody invests money to buy it, I would hope they would improve it. The way I see it though, it can stay the same or get better. I don’t see it getting worse.”
Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin, in whose ward Leigh Mall sits, agrees.
“The roof is leaking, the parking lot is in bad shape, and things like that are keeping quality tenants away,” he said. “I mean, if the roof on my house is leaking, I’m going to get it fixed.”
Leigh Mall sits on a “prime piece of real estate” amid Columbus’ retail center with frontage on U.S. Highways 82 and 45. Since 2014, the mall has picked up high profile tenants like Hobby Lobby and Planet Fitness, but in recent years it also has lost JCPenney, Radio Shack, Sears and a couple of jewelry stores, among others.
That has triggered what Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins called a “death spiral” at Leigh Mall.
“You’re not bringing in enough revenue to keep the place up and when you can’t keep the place up, the quality of the tenants goes down, which means you start getting less revenue in rents,” Higgins explained.
Higgins, whose organization recruits industry for Lowndes County and up until Oct. 1 was contracted to provide industrial and retail recruitment for Columbus, said about a half-dozen serious developers had unsuccessfully tried to purchase Leigh Mall from Security National Properties over the past 15 years.
“The last was about six months ago,” he said. “We had a Mid-South developer and his consultant that handles financing sit down with (LINK officials) in our office. They told us they were going to make a run at it, but they couldn’t get it done. The price was just too high.”
Mall redevelopments across the country are trending toward providing outside entrances to all the stores, said Will Kline, project manager for The Retail Coach — the Tupelo-based firm the city hired in September for retail development.
Another option mall redevelopment groups are exploiting are multi-story “lifestyle centers” with retail on the lower level and offices or residences above.
While Kline said The Retail Coach won’t have any say in what a developer does with the property, he considers recruiting for Leigh Mall a “high priority” once his company officially has a contract with the city.
“Leigh Mall has been a priority since our early conversations with the city,” Kline said. “We want it to be full, we want the tenants to make sense and we want the tenants happy.”
That might not be the easiest task, though, Kline admits.
He said The Retail Coach has worked for more than two years with Vicksburg, another city with a declining mall property. Kline said the biggest challenge with that mall is it’s “off the beaten path” — a problem Leigh Mall doesn’t have.
“We’ve had success in Vicksburg, but it’s mainly been in other parts of town,” Kline said.
‘There comes a point when the suffering needs to end’
Local developer Mark Castleberry is aware of the potential at Leigh Mall, as well as other developers’ failed attempts to purchase it.
With a forced sale, if that comes to pass, the price-point could finally place the mall in the right developer’s hands.
“This could be a very positive thing,” Castleberry said. “Leigh Mall is really the front door of Columbus, with significant visibility from 82 and 45, and right now people driving through see a declining mall. They’ve stopped others from coming in and redeveloping. … There comes a point when the suffering needs to end.”
Castleberry owns hotel and restaurant property along Highway 45, including the Breaux Bridge Cajun seafood restaurant that opened this summer just across Highway 45 from the mall. While he admits his investments would greatly benefit from Leigh Mall’s revival, he said he had no plans to bid on the mall property.
“I’m not interested,” he said. “There are people much better than I am for this project who specialize in purchasing old malls and redeveloping them.”