February 1, 2023
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Filling the void: Mall operators struggle to bring in business | News, Sports, Jobs

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The effects of online ordering, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation, can be seen and felt in the empty spaces at the Logan Valley Mall and the Johnstown Galleria.

The trend to shop from home or in “strip malls” hasn’t gone unnoticed by shoppers, mall promoters and retailers, who oftentimes can go hours without any customers.

“Sometimes we get just one or two people in the store. … If it’s a special day, we might get more than that,” said Dee Kozak, manager of Kozee’s Emporium in the Logan Valley Mall.

Kozak said with prices rising due to inflation, customers just don’t have the money to buy.

With fewer customers, businesses are struggling, she said, noting that the Emporium has been located in the mall for 17 years.

As a family business, they are trying to keep the shop viable, she said, but the foot traffic in the mall and to her store has greatly diminished since the pandemic — largely due to people shopping online.

As fewer people shop in person, stores have been closing. It’s creating a domino effect.

“A lot of stores are not making enough money to pay to sit in there for nothing,” Kozak said.

Ebb and flow of business

Jason Wojcik, professor of history and cultural studies at Penn Highlands, said malls in the area rose with the growth of suburban culture in the 1950s.

Malls pulled customers and businesses from the downtowns and became the “happening” place to be.

Better roads, cars and the development of housing with the help of the GI Bill allowed people to expand out of the city, he said.

“I think of Johnstown,” Wojcik said. “The downtown was the place of business and shopping with the ‘mom and pop’ stores. When people moved out, shopping followed.”

In 1960, there were 4,500 malls. That number grew to 30,000 by 1975, he said.

Malls were the place to hold events and socialize, and they became a meeting place for teens to hang out on Friday and Saturday nights.

“I remember, when I was a teenager, my friends and I would spend our weekend evenings at the mall,” Wojcik said. “It was the place where teenagers went to meet each other, buy music or grab something to eat.”

He said just as local stores were impacted by large department stores, malls are now experiencing a similar problem with the rise of online shopping.

“People now can socialize online,” Wojcik said. “Instead of arcades, people can play games virtually with friends from all over the nation.”

Malls were already struggling in response to the increase in online shopping and the decline in populations in the surrounding areas, he said, and those problems were accelerated when the pandemic hit and the new normal was to shop online, thus avoiding crowds and the coronavirus.

Logan Valley Mall plans for future

The Logan Valley Mall opened in 1965 as an open-air shopping center, and two years later became an enclosed mall with the addition of JCPenney, according to records.

Hess’s department store was added with another expansion in 1979.

The mall that stands today is the result of renovations after a massive fire swept through much of the building on Dec. 16, 1994.

Anchor stores JCPenney and Macy’s (in the former Hess’s location) were joined by Sears until Sears closed its doors March 3, 2019. That space remains vacant today, along with a handful of other stores that either closed completely or moved elsewhere.

The loss of the AMC Classic Logan Valley 8 cinemas, which closed on July 7, 2021, has also created a void as people don’t spend time at the mall while waiting for a movie to start.

Stores such as Hallmark, Justice, PacSun, Eddie Bauer, Christopher and Banks, Yankee Candle, Things Remembered, Gymboree, Five Star Mitsubishi, Regis Salon, Crazy 8 and many more used to call the Logan Valley Mall home.

Despite about 50 empty storefronts, about 40 businesses and two food court locations remain and mall management has plans in place to draw in customers.

Bringing more people into the mall would be great, said Reggie Gadsden, owner of Executive Barberz.

Executive Barberz opened on Nov. 15, 2020 — during the pandemic — and has been busy, Gadsden said.

“Some days are slow, but on most days, you can’t get a break,” he said.

While the business is busy all year, Gadsden sees an uptick in May through August.

Because he is finding success in the mall, he also recently opened K&R Hot Dog Express, a mobile food cart in front of Gardner’s Candy on the first level, near the escalators.

The stand offers all beef hot dogs, sausages, Italian ice, candy, chips, drinks, newspapers and other miscellaneous convenience items in the space that was formerly a newsstand.

Tianna Lee, who works at the stand, said business has been good since the beginning and she’s noticed that foot traffic tends to pick up after people get off work.

“Our Italian ice is the most popular item,” she said. “It sells out a lot.”

Food specials on Saturday and Sundays help drive business, too, she said.

“We honestly cannot complain right now, we are just hoping to get more people in the mall,” Gadsden said.

General Manager Tomas Delaney said he is optimistic about the future of the mall.

“The possibilities are exciting, and we are actively working alongside our corporate offices to identify opportunities that would be well-suited for our community,” he said.

Malls like Logan Valley are important destinations for communities, which are evolving and adapting, Delaney said.

Vacancies are being repurposed with new and different tenants and the mall’s strategy is to bring in local and regional businesses, especially small businesses, and diversify the tenant mix to include entertainment options — such as the reopening of the Adventure Park children’s play area and the addition of a Pennsylvania Skills Games location.

Upcoming events at the mall include the Lewis & Clark Circus, set for June 23-26, along with an antique and classic car show, a fashion show and a wrestling event organized by a local promotional agency.

“Our Valentine’s Days photo contest and Easter Egg Hunt were also successful drivers to motivate people to come out and boost traffic in the mall, so we are planning similar promotions and events during the course of the year,” Delaney said.

Penn Highlands in Logan Valley Mall

One success story at the Logan Valley Mall, in terms of repurposing, adapting and evolving, is the expansion of the Blair County location of Penn Highlands Community College. Penn Highlands opened in the Macy’s corridor of the mall in 2013, and has seen steady growth since then, said director Chris Farrell.

In 2018, the location expanded to the second floor with the campus now including 11 classrooms, science labs, two computer labs and a health science lab.

“If you have only seen our school while walking through the mall, I encourage you to come inside and check it out,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much space we have until they get to see all of our classrooms.”

Farrell ticked off some of the benefits of being in the mall — location that everyone knows, lots of parking options, places to eat, and it allows students who work in the mall easy access to classes.

“We want to have a nice college-like atmosphere even from being in the mall,” Farrell said. “We understand that we are in the mall, but we also understand that we are a growing college.”

The mall has been flexible by allowing parking lot parties, adding an outdoor patio and engaging with the college for activities and events, he said.

For example, the mall provided the creativity club with opportunities to paint on the windows inside the mall.

Farrell said the college is also talking with one of its business professors about a potential market research project that would give students some real work experience.

While there are no plans to expand further into the mall, Farrell said he hopes the college will continue to make a positive impact.

Johnstown Galleria vies with strip mall

Over the mountain at the Johnstown Galleria, efforts to boost foot traffic and shopping venues are ongoing.

Opened in 1992 with four anchor stores — Bon-Ton, Boscov’s, JCPenney and Sears — the mall has seen a drastic decline after Sears and Bon-Ton closed and the Richland Town Center opened, drawing business away from the mall.

But, it’s not the first time one mall pulled business away from another.

The Galleria, billed as a state-of-the-art facility, caused many businesses to abandon the aging Richland Mall that opened in 1974. Despite renovations, the Richland Mall closed in 1998. That building was eventually demolished to make way for the Richland Town Center, where Walmart, Best Buy and other stores can be found.

“Once they built the Walmart plaza, the stores and the people started to leave,” said Jeff Bidelman, owner of Rare Collectibles and B & B Liquidations.

When Rare Collectibles opened in 1998, Bidelman remembers the Galleria being packed with shoppers, but that began to change with the opening of the new plaza.

Bidelman said the deals to move to the plaza were good and many stores took the opportunity to move. Shoppers followed, he said.

“With the stores leaving and people leaving Johns­town, it’s just a death blow to the mall,” he said.

Because of the current situation with about 27 empty storefronts, the Galleria is more open-minded for business and entrepreneurship opportunities, Bidelman said.

With the food court down to one eatery, Bidelman said anything the mall management could do to bring in shoppers would be a help.

“I’ve seen some malls add casinos and other entertainment that brought people back. I think that might not be a bad idea for the Galleria, too,” he said.

Angel Speed, owner and manager of the Amish store in the Galleria, said business is not going well. Bath and Body Works recently moved out, and Speed has seen sales decrease by at least 60% because of that action.

“That store was a big draw, and it brought a lot of people from Boscov’s into the rest of the mall,” Speed said.

Among the stores that have left the mall are BonWorth, deb, Gardner’s Candy, Hollister, Littman’s Jewelers, Radio Shack, Spring, The Children’s Place and Verizon Wireless.

While summer is often a slower time for malls, as people are traveling and enjoying the outdoors, Speed said she and about 38 other tenants in the mall are looking ahead to the holiday season.

“The advantage of the holidays is most stores would make enough to survive for the rest of the year,” Speed said.

But last Christmas, the interior of the mall appeared devoid of shoppers and without stores to draw customers from Boscov’s and JCPenney’s, Speed and others are worried.

Community connections

As malls decline, Wojick said tax revenue is being lost. Not only that, he said, but the personal connections that malls brought to communities are being lost.

Malls will have to repurpose to stay relevant, he said.

“Some are becoming centers for entertainment, from restaurants to bowling alleys to Dave and Busters to casinos,” he said. “Others are becoming a center for community events and providing the feel of the old downtown areas.”

Westmoreland Mall in Greensburg is an example of a mall that benefited from repurposing the space and added more entertainment options, according to Jim Teague, Chair Department of Finance and Economic Division of Business and Enterprise at University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown.

“They added the Pittsburgh Live! Casino in 2020, and the mall has roared back to near full capacity because of that and the addition of more elements, like a new entertainment facility,” he said.

Westmoreland is part of a trend that is taking place across the country with malls that are surviving and thriving by changing into entertainment facilities and providing a completely different experience,” Teague said.

For Kozak, Speed, Bidelman and other small business owners who make their home in area malls, the future is uncertain.

“We are concerned not as many people will come to the mall with most of the big stores gone,” Speed said.

The management company for the Galleria Mall did not reply for comment on this story.

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