Since January, the owner of the beleaguered Shops at Rockvale has spent more than $200 million buying more shopping centers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.
Meanwhile, local officials are disappointed that they have heard nothing from The Shops at Rockvale’s owner, Wharton Realty Group, on its 2-year-old conceptual plan to overhaul the 65-acre shopping center to create a mixed-use development. In 2020, East Lampeter Township approved Wharton Realty’s request to rezone the property to accommodate the concept, but a formal plan to redevelop the site has yet to be submitted to the township.
“The board (of supervisors) was hopeful the amendment they completed at the owner’s request would facilitate redevelopment of the property and we’re all disappointed that has not occurred,” said township manager Ralph Hutchison.
Hutchison said the township has reached out to Wharton Realty from time to time but has not received a response.
In April, Wharton Realty purchased Exeter Commons shopping center in Exeter Township, Berks County, and Deptford Landing in Gloucester County, New Jersey, for a reported combined $140 million.
In January, the company bought Homestead Pavilion shopping center in Homestead, Florida, for $82 million.
Wharton Realty Group is based in Eatontown, New Jersey. Owners Isaac and Mark Massry did not respond to emails or telephone messages from LNP | LancasterOnline regarding the shopping center. Shops at Rockvale manager Kristi Burkholder responded to emailed questions saying the company is still interested in redevelopment.
“We are absolutely working toward the future redevelopment of Rockvale to return it to the cornerstone of Lancaster County with new and exciting uses!” Burkholder said in an email.
She did not answer questions about occupancy rate or if new tenants are still being recruited.
“There are many exciting things in the works that we look forward to sharing with our community supporters in the near future,” Burkholder wrote.
The company, which owns more than 4 million square feet of retail and office buildings in 12 states, says on its website it is aggressively seeking retail centers.
Its corporate strategy “entails purchasing sites below replacement cost with the goal of attaining attractive yields for our investors. Our acquisition team is continuously traveling across the country seeking new market opportunities.”
“We take pride in the fact that we have been successful in rehabilitating several of the buildings from financial loss to become very profitable,” the company said on its website. ”Our very strong leasing capability has led us to obtain a portfolio with a 98% occupancy rate.”
Once home to 120 stores, The Shops at Rockvale today lists 40 businesses, including outlet stores and restaurants. It lists 16 storefronts available for lease on its website.
As recently as early May, a new business, Hatchet & Axe, opened at the shopping center in a 3,200-square-foot spot beside Cracker Barrel. Its owner, Brian Cline, has said he plans to expand there by taking adjacent spaces that will be combined into a 10,000-square-foot complex.
A shopping center interactive map on The Shops at Rockvale’s website shows a large swath of empty stores between South Willowdale and Rockvale drives. A map of leasing opportunities says “new development coming soon” in that area between the Orvis store and the center management office.
The Shops at Rockvale’s property value was $63.7 million when it already had lost substantial business to nearby Tanger Outlets and e-commerce retailers.
Wharton Realty acquired The Shops at Rockvale in 2017 for $30 million. It also owns the Manor Shopping Center on Millersville Pike in Lancaster Township.
The Shops at Rockvale’s woes led to a 53% reduction in its property tax bill beginning in 2018, because its vacancies made the property much less valuable, leaving other taxpayers to pick up the slack.
In March 2020, Wharton Realty sought the flexibility to replace some stores at The Shops at Rockvale with housing and offices, options that were not allowed under the property’s zoning. It won approval for a change in zoning in July 2020, which led to speculation that the zoning might lead to other changes in the tourism corridor, a stretch of Route 30 between Route 896 and Strasburg Pike that includes The Shops at Rockvale, Tanger Outlets, Dutch Wonderland, the Cartoon Network Hotel and the American Music Theatre.
The most recent departure from The Shops at Rockvale was Generations of Furniture, a store that sold living room, dining room and bedroom furniture and vintage items from a spot behind Olive Garden. The 8,000-square foot store closed on May 15. Owner Ryan Bannon cited the planned redevelopment as his decision not to renew the lease. The store, which has a Gettysburg location, had been at The Shops at Rockvale since 2018.
Bannon said he returned to Lancaster County on Memorial Day to see how the shopping center was doing. He said he didn’t see the traditional tent and sidewalk sale at the shopping center and it was much quieter compared to the bustling parking lot of Tanger Outlets.
The Shops at Rockvale has no events, including the popular makers markets where small craft and food businesses display and sell their products, listed for June and July.
Burkholder said the decision to cut summer markets was made after reviewing the market trends over the past few summers and seeing a lower amount of traffic during these times.
“We felt it was a great opportunity to take a break and give our small businesses the chance to explore markets in other areas, grow their customer database as well as allow the makers and market team to enjoy some time off,” Burkholder said. “We can’t wait to resume Labor Day Weekend (Sept. 3) with a Makers Market that will be unforgettable!”
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