The Charleston Gazette-Mail published this editorial on Sept. 8:
The declining Charleston Town Center mall was bought out of receivership by Georgia property development firm the Hull Group for $7.5 million in May. In the time since, precious little has been said about what the group plans to do with the property.
Gazette-Mail reporter Greg Stone noted in a recent article that the mall seems to be one of the largest, if not the largest, properties the development firm owns. Whether that’s good, bad or of no particular importance is hard to tell. The Hull Group, as it often has since buying the Town Center, declined comment.
Stone’s article did document some disagreements the group had with municipal governments over tax structures, and a lot of demolition work at one site with not much redevelopment in terms of business, although the property looks better with the Hull Group developing some green space.
Other than looking at other properties the group owns, it’s hard to tell what the future looks like for the Town Center, once the regional crown jewel for shopping, with 141 stores, about 4,000 employees and $260 million in annual sales in the 1990s. Today the Town Center is sparsely populated, with 66 tenants.
Although a little more information would be nice, it’s hard to blame the Hull Group for not releasing a business strategy for a property that, at least in terms of realty and commerce, is pretty new to their portfolio. And it’s a challenging property, at that.
The most obvious problem is the decline of retail sales in brick-and-mortar stores, as online sales continue to absorb more and more of the market. Couple that with a pandemic now spanning 18 months, and it’s no surprise businesses relying on foot traffic have taken a beating.
The Town Center also comes with its own, relatively unique set of issues. It’s locked in downtown Charleston, so there’s not really any room to grow without serious renovations to the existing property. Meanwhile, the Charleston Urban Renewal Authority and the Charleston Building Commission are playing a game of hot potato as to who actually owns the parking garages that hem the mall in (garages that need about $5 million in renovation and repairs). Also, while the Hull Group owns most of the mall property, the Urban Renewal Authority owns the former Macy’s building, a two-story former anchor for the mall.
But it’s not all bad. The location is adjacent to the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center, along with the city’s historic Municipal Auditorium. The mall can look like a home for ghosts on many days, but when there were events at those nearby facilities pre-pandemic — especially state tournaments for high school athletics — the Town Center could resemble the busiest shopping center on the planet.
Those facilities have been hosting events again, although, once again, the COVID-19 pandemic is ramping up, so it’s hard to say what that will mean for the mall short-term. Long-term, the location will be a benefit, if it’s tailored to maximize on event-related downtown crowds with other elements that can sustain business on ordinary days.
It’s a difficult road ahead, and it’s doubtful a plan or solution will come immediately. Hopefully, there is a plan, though, and Charleston residents will get to see it soon.