The Great American Salesman stands at the ready inside the Sprint kiosk at Citadel Mall, a mall that — let's face it — has seen better days. While the workers at other kiosks slouch on their stools, smoke e-cigarettes, and check Facebook on their phones during a slow weekday afternoon, he makes eye contact with anyone who walks close enough and strikes up a conversation. A customer approaches, and the salesman calls him "boss," shakes his hand, lets him know that he is valued.
If Citadel Mall is dying, the salesman refuses to believe it.
"I'm one of the few people that's still trying to fight for the sake of this mall," he says after the customer walks away with a new phone case. The salesman's name is VJ Kovelesky, and he has worked at the mall in one capacity or another for the past seven years. A New York native with a neatly trimmed beard, he talks fast like a Yankee but charms like a Southerner.
Kovelesky will be the first to admit that Citadel Mall has its problems. Its owners, Tennessee-based CBL & Associates Properties, started missing payments on their mortgage this year, leading the U.S. Bank National Association to sue for foreclosure and a judge to place the mall in receivership to New York-based Spinoso Real Estate Group in September. An entire wing has been all but deserted by tenants, and Kovelesky says he sees "droves of teenagers" who get dropped off by their parents and roam the concourse raising hell. Still, he doesn't make excuses when it comes to his work.
"Don't expect the customers to come to you," Kovelesky says. "You have to go to them. Seek out business, and business will come to you."
The concept of the indoor mall may be approaching its expiration date, like cable TV and fossil fuels. A website called deadmalls.com has been chronicling the demise of shopping meccas across the country since 2000, and the malls still standing could take a few warnings from the obituaries. A concatenation of crime, demographic shifts, maintenance problems, and blight-inducing low-end tenants can chase customers away, and, of course, online shopping and a down economy haven't done the industry any favors.
In his seven years, Kovelesky says Citadel Mall has had several different managers, some of whom have butted heads with the tenants over leasing and maintenance issues. He's also seen a shift in the West Ashley suburbs surrounding the mall. "The demographic around the mall is really just — pardon my French — it's shit," he says. "Nobody wants to come here because it's like we have housing projects completely surrounding the mall, and you don't get to a nicer area of the woods until you get out of this zip code, essentially. With all the trouble that West Ashley sees, it gets a bad rap."
Trouble makes its way into the mall, too, even with the beefed-up police and security presence in recent years. In November 2008, on the cusp of the holiday shopping season, three men who had reportedly been shopping at the mall took an argument into the parking lot. One of the men shot another dead, and a law enforcement officer shot the gunman in the leg.
In another incident that put a damper on the holiday shopping season, on Christmas Eve 2012, a mugger pointed a handgun at a man in the food court restroom and demanded his wallet. This news came a few months after four people were chased and assaulted in the parking lot by three men armed with a crowbar, a shovel, and a tire iron.
For the easily spooked, the list goes on. In January this year, a janitor found a written bomb threat in a vacant kiosk, prompting a visit from the bomb squad that turned up nothing. Recently, on Sat. Oct. 5, a waitress at Sesame Burgers & Beer was serving customers on the patio near Target when she heard gunfire and saw a man with a wounded leg limping toward the food court. For reasons that remain unclear, the gunshot victim walked into the mall after being shot, evaded police, and didn't show up at a hospital until the next day.
Kovelesky was working on the evening of the Oct. 5 shooting. He remembers that the sales team was buzzing from a solid day of sales when, "all of a sudden, the mall was like a ghost town." Police lined the concourse, questioned workers about whether they had heard anything, and stopped a black male who matched the shooter's description — but turned out only to be a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I was like, 'Well this is great,'" Kovelesky says. "'This is just what this mall needs.'"
For an enclosed space that gets more foot traffic than some mid-sized towns, a handful of shootings over the course of five years does not make a terrible track record. Still, when questions of safety arise, even longtime shoppers can be fickle.
"There are several examples across the country where one shooting in a mall parking lot has led to the decline of an entire mall," says Richard Tunstall, principal of Atlanta-based Market Analysis and Research, which provides consulting services to mall owners. "Even if it's only a perceived safety issue, that safety issue becomes reality. I'm thinking of malls like the Mall of Memphis, which is not there anymore, and that was almost entirely [because of] demographics and safety concerns."
The trend in recent years has been away from indoor malls and toward building outdoor shopping centers, like Towne Centre in Mt. Pleasant and the Tanger Outlets in North Charleston. Over the last seven years, Tunstall says, developers nationwide have built only one regional indoor shopping mall. Outdoor malls have several advantages, he says, including lower maintenance costs and the ability to thrive without large-scale anchor stores.
"We're over-retailed in the country," Tunstall says. "The regional malls, there simply isn't much demand for that size of retail format. The existing malls have gotten into a bit of trouble partly because of the overbuilding."
As early as 2001, a study commissioned by the Congress for the New Urbanism noted that "obsolete shopping malls dot the American landscape" and identified 200 malls that were at risk of becoming "greyfield malls" — retail properties where sales per square foot have fallen below $150 and intervention is needed to quell the death rattle. The study cited potential reasons for mall decline including changing transportation corridors, population shifts to the exurbs, and competition from newer shopping destinations built nearby.
Tunstall says that, despite a rash of vacancies, Citadel Mall does have a few things going for it. None of the anchor tenants have closed up shop, he notes, and "the Dillard's store there actually does OK." The mall also has a strong stable of big-name national retailers like Victoria's Secret, American Eagle, The Limited, and Express, and a new IMAX cinema was built in the parking lot in 2009.
Parts of the mall do have a faintly haunted quality to them, though, as if the ghosts of Christmas shoppers past still clamor in the 16 vacant stalls. Walking in through Sears, one encounters an eerie stillness at midday and, upon entering the mall proper, is greeted by a row of three empty shops and a playground where a few young children romp around unattended. The red tile awning at the old Hollister remains intact, the tinge of cologne and teenage hormones all but vanished nearly two years after the store's closing. Even at the busy end of the mall, near Target and the food court, a coin-operated ice cream truck ride sometimes jolts passersby on a quiet day when, unbidden, it springs to life with the canned laughter of children.
Built in 1981, Citadel Mall was purchased in 2001 by CBL & Associates, a major player in the Southeastern U.S. mall business. Today, the facility has begun to show signs of its age, including occasional rain leaks near the skylights and brown moisture stains in the ceiling.
Financially, the picture is middling. In its annual report for 2012, CBL reported that Citadel Mall was doing $233 per square foot in sales, up from a recession-era slump that saw the figure dropping as low as $197 per square foot. According to the classifications in the 2001 greyfield malls study, that earns the mall a letter grade of B for financial health. For a point of comparison, the CBL-owned Northwoods Mall in North Charleston took in $388 per square foot in 2012 (earning an A, but not an A+).
CBL evidently takes $250 per square foot as an important benchmark. In a shareholder letter dated Sept. 17, the company wrote that at the end of 2011, 11 malls in the CBL portfolio were producing sales under that level. "Today," the letter boasted, "after the impact of disposition activity as well as positive sales growth, the CBL core mall portfolio contains just three malls with sales of less than $250 per square foot."
News that CBL had fallen behind on its mortgage payments at Citadel Mall drew mixed reactions from the tenants. Managers at corporate-owned stores were mostly unable to speak on the record, but some said they had long been frustrated by slow follow-through on maintenance issues and a lack of responsiveness from management. Others remarked that the mall was getting all the wrong sorts of tenants, including a bevy of sneaker stores that one manager said "appeal to the demographic that causes trouble." One store manager postulated that if the foreclosure goes through, a change of ownership could be the best news the mall has had in years, providing an injection of cash to rejuvenate the aging facility.
The City of Charleston has also taken an interest. City Councilman Blake Hallman, whose district includes parts of West Ashley near Citadel Mall, says Spinoso Real Estate Group has been in contact with the city and shared its plans. Short-term, he says, Spinoso is looking to improve maintenance issues and erect new signs to increase the mall's visibility. Long-term, Hallman says new development at the Citadel Mall site could be part of a broader city plan revitalize West Ashley through zoning changes and beautification projects.
"It would be my hope that the city does not buy the property because of the cost involved, but that we would bring in a realtor or a management company that sees a vision for it, with some input from the city, to make that as efficient as possible," Hallman says. "A hotel, a library, there's got to be a better mixed use for that spot than what is currently designed."
Hallman says that whatever changes at the mall site, the anchor tenants at the ends will likely stay. Spinoso and CBL did not return requests for comment.
Citadel Mall General Manager Phil Alldredge, who came to the mall a year ago after doing real estate development work in Alabama, says the mall game has changed dramatically in the past decade. "Retail in general has slowed. You may go to a mall or a center and have a lot of traffic, but they're all lookers. You may have less traffic, but there are more buyers. Every day is different in the retail industry," Alldredge says. "I think the industry as a whole, we got our fill of going out and just buying during the late '90s and early 2000s. When the Great Recession hit, I think people had to look at things differently."
Alldredge says the mall's location at the western terminus of I-526 is still prime real estate, and the shopping center still holds a place in the memories of many locals. "The strategy is the doors are not going to close, the bills are going to be paid, and we're going to take an approach of what the market wants," Alldredge says. "If the market doesn't want it, that will tell the tale."
Back in the golden era, shopping malls were primarily for — you know — shopping. But as retailers abandoned their storefronts during lean years, malls including Citadel and Northwoods started experimenting with nontraditional tenants like gyms and cosmetology schools. The wing of Citadel Mall near the Dillard's features the nonprofit American Military Museum, situated next door to a private preschool called Van Buren Academy. Across the concourse lie the Best Friend of Charleston Railway Museum and the headquarters of the Charleston Area Model Railroad Club, both open from 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
"When you see model train shops in a mall, you know things aren't going too well," says Tunstall, the mall consultant. Still, an unusual tenant who pays the rent is better than no tenant at all. Tunstall says many malls have a covenant whereby tenants can break their leases when occupancy falls below a certain percentage. When that threshold is crossed, a slow trickle can become a flood.
Alldredge acknowledges that the mall has taken on some unorthodox tenants. "Museums are a little different. That's not to say they don't belong here," he says. "If it's marketed correctly, it can bring traffic ... If you go into some of the bigger malls, you'll see amusement. The Mall of America, where you have an indoor roller coaster, I mean, is that nontraditional? Well, yeah, but it brings people in."
Inside the American Military Museum, tracklit corridors of glass cases contain a wide array of service members' gear, from Desert Storm uniforms to Nazi armbands to a shadowbox simply labeled "AXIS PISTOLS." Sifting through the hodgepodge of MREs, medals, and machine guns while listening to the big-band music piped in over the loudspeakers, it's easy to forget you're inside a mall.
Before moving in December 2012, the museum was located on Concord Street downtown, near the S.C. Aquarium. Treasurer Jeff Uyak says that shortly after the Concord Street property owners announced that the museum would not be allowed to renew its lease, Alldredge approached him and the museum's other board members about the possibility of relocating to Citadel Mall. Alldredge had made a similar offer several years prior to the Model Railroad Club, which was looking for a new home after getting booted from a Park Circle community center.
"They probably thought the same thing we did: 'Well, that doesn't make any sense,'" Uyak says. "But they had to go somewhere, and they didn't necessarily want to close. And that was the dilemma that we faced."
"We get asked every day how we make it in this mall," says Rashad Williams, manager and owner of Mystic Fragrances, a sparsely decorated shop that has spent a year on the quiet Sears wing of Citadel Mall.
One common complaint among the mall's tenants is that foot traffic is down. But Williams, who previously peddled his wares on downtown Charleston sidewalks, says he can rely on loyal customers even when the mall-walkers stop venturing past the food court. "The main thing with this mall is, man, you don't have stores that make people want to walk around," he says. "You get people that just come in through that entrance by King Street Grill and the gym, and they just come here, they just come to Palmetto Moon, they go to Journeys. Those people going to Target, they're just going to Target."
As Williams packs shea butter into plastic containers with an ice cream scoop, he chews on a licorice root, which he explains has healing properties for a range of symptoms including sore throat, indigestion, bad breath, and asthma. His is a specialty store to say the least, practically cornering the mall market on items like handmade fragrances, paintings of black Jesus and the black Last Supper, and back issues of the official Nation of Islam newspaper The Final Call. A countertop rack shows off soaps made with sandalwood, royal jelly extract, and mango butter, and a set of cubbies near the back displays packages of incense with names like Sex on the Beach, Good Luck, Opium, and Aphrodesia.
Before Mystic Fragrances, this shop was a Loose Lucy's, and before that it was a Ritz Camera. Williams used to rent a kiosk in Citadel Mall, but he says he's glad he made the move to a more permanent location.
"When we did a year in the Tanger Outlets about five years or so ago, we got a lot of people that were asking, 'When are y'all coming back to Citadel Mall?'" Williams says. "You've got a lot of people in this area, West Ashley, that can't get all the way to Northwoods Mall, so even with it being a small market out here and slower traffic, we were still leaving money on the table ... You've got a lot of people out in Ravenel and that side, it's a voyage for them to get out to Northwoods, so being here is a convenience for them."
Williams says business is steady, and he's doing much better than most people in his industry, who often set up shop in flea markets and on street corners as he once did. The mall has been good to him, and he doesn't have many complaints. He pauses from conversation to wrap up a sale with a customer who's hooked on Mystic Fragrances, a man in two-tone shoes and baby-blue church attire who has come in for a refill on his favorite scent.
"Stay out of trouble, now," Williams chides as the customer walks out. The man looks back over his shoulder and holds up his purchase, grinning wide.
"Oh, this is gonna put me in big trouble," he says.