CHARLESTON — COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into operations for every business big or small in the Kanawha Valley, but few will feel the brunt of the pandemic like the Charleston Town Center mall.
Joseph A. Bank, Hollister, the WVU fan store and others have left. Before the pandemic, the mall was still grappling with the loss of three anchor stores — Macy’s, Sears and Montgomery Ward. The mall’s lone anchor now is JCPenney.
The occupancy rate for the mall on July 1, 2019, was about 82%, according to William Bender, a private appraiser for U.S. National Bank Association, which bought the mall for $35 million in January 2019. A representative for the bank did not return a request for comment on the mall’s current occupancy rate.
Store closures inside the mall show revenues are falling, but the mall’s tax assessments over the last decade quantify the mall’s losses even before the pandemic began and what the decreased tax values mean for the community.
U.S. National Bank went before the Kanawha County Commission on Oct. 14 to appeal the county’s tax assessment for the previous year on the mall. The county assessor’s office valued the mall at about $61.7 million for the 2020 tax year. That was determined before the pandemic began.
During the three-hour appeal meeting, Bender said he valued the mall at $36 million, according to a meeting transcript. The two sides debated and came to an agreement with the final assessment value determined at $51 million.
The mall’s value has now dropped close to what its value was in 2011 when it was appraised at $50.8 million.
In 2012, the mall’s value shot up to $69.8 million, generating more than $2.9 million in new tax revenue for the state, Kanawha County, the City of Charleston and the Kanawha Board of Education.
The mall’s value remained slightly less than $70 million from 2012 to 2019, which sent more than $33,000 of tax revenue to the state, $1.92 million to Kanawha County, $2.6 million to the school board and $1.24 million to Charleston.
The mall generated $9.5 million in total tax revenue during those eight years.
But now, with the mall valued at $51 million, tax revenues will drop to levels seen at the beginning of the last decade. Instead of nearly $325,000 going to the school board, the mall will generate around $238,000 for the school board this tax year — a nearly $90,000 difference.
Had U.S. National Bank’s $36 million figure been implemented, $167,616 would have been sent to the school board this tax year — a nearly 40% cut in revenue in just one year.
The damage done to the mall’s value by the pandemic will not be shown until next tax year.
Commercial real estate and the hospitality industry have taken some of biggest hits in the pandemic, which will continue until people feel it’s safe to travel again, said Frank DeMarco, a hospitality and tourism economics professor at West Virginia University.
“Tourism is an economic driver, and right now people don’t feel safe to travel,” DeMarco said.
DeMarco has studied data on the pandemic’s effect on West Virginia’s hospitality industry, which show metro areas like Charleston are feeling the pandemic losses much harder than the resorts and state parks, he said.
“The Greenbrier has done exceptionally well compared to a metro area,” he said. “If you look at some of the data it’s showing that the rural areas, especially resorts, are able to get to probably 80% back to where they were last year at this time.”
This has a significant indirect effect on revenues in metro tourist destinations, because if people are traveling, DeMarco said, they’re traveling away from cities. The pandemic also lessens the chance West Virginians will utilize Charleston as a weekend shopping destination as they have in the past.
“A place like the mall is definitely going to be affected, especially in a state like West Virginia where we only have so many shopping opportunities — a lot of people did travel to Charleston for shopping,” DeMarco said.
DeMarco said hotels in metro areas are lucky to be at 40% capacity during the fall months this year, when in normal years metro hotels hover at about 80% occupancy.
Also before the pandemic, one of Charleston’s largest hotels, the Charleston Marriott Town Center, went before the Kanawha Commission in February to appeal its appraised value. Xenia Hotels, the Orlando, Florida-based company that owns the Marriott, sought to have the value of the property reduced by nearly $11 million — from $16.5 million to nearly $5.8 million.
Xenia even sued the county to get the appraisal number dropped, but failed.
The Marriott generates almost $312,000 for Kanawha County at its current assessed value — at Xenia’s assessment, the Marriott should only be paying $109,000 annually in taxes to the county, a difference of more than $200,000.
For perspective, that revenue difference would pay nearly the entire annual salaries for five sheriff deputies, who are paid an average of $42,000 annually.
Any taxpayer in the county is eligible to appeal their property’s assessed value before the commission, and with the damage done to the commercial real estate industry this year, expect the Marriott to be back appealing again next tax year.
As for the mall, the longer the pandemic stretches, the more revenues fall — so does the appraised value. When the value falls, so do the tax revenues that fund essential city and county operations.