Five years ago, Golden Triangle Development LINK CEO Joe Max Higgins described Leigh Mall as being in a “death spiral.” As occupancy has dropped, mall management lowered rents to entice new tenants, but lower rents led to lower revenue, which in turn led to deteriorating conditions that, over time, turned the city’s showplace retail complex into an eyesore. Sears closed in 2013, followed by JCPenney in 2017. Two-thirds of the retail spaces are now vacant. Leigh Mall has been widely perceived as a metaphor for a city in decline.
So when The Hull Group bought the 300,000 square foot property in a bankruptcy auction in October, 2019, hopes for a renaissance began to emerge.
It’s now been 2 ½ years since The Hull Group purchased the mall and a significant milestone was reached this week.
The Lowndes County Board of Supervisors and the Columbus City Council approved a $3 million incentive package to aid the Hull Group in its redevelopment efforts.
Under the terms of the agreement, the Hull Group will pay taxes on the mall at its current assessed value. The ad valorem value of any additions made will be repaid to the company, along with 75 percent of the net sales tax collected on non-grocery sales.
In the event of a grocery store locating in the space, 50 percent of the sales tax generated by grocery sales will go back to the company. Tax revenue for schools will not be affected.
The new mall owners’ general plan is to “flip” the mall inside out, creating storefronts that are accessible from the parking lot individually rather than a few main entrances as the current layout dictates.
It will no doubt be an expensive undertaking, but given the importance of the mall — not only in terms of the jobs and revenue it creates, but its symbolic significance — we believe our local governments acted wisely in providing performance-based incentives that also require accountability.
We believe the agreement achieves two important purposes; It helps redevelopment of a key retail center while looking out for the taxpayers’ interests.
We realize that the vision for a new Leigh Mall will take years to achieve and that there are no guarantees that it will again assume its original status.
But there is cause for optimism, certainly.
It’s been a long, long time since we could say that.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.