A line in the sand has been drawn regarding the future of Mayberry Mall in Mount Airy — which could be closing by Feb. 1, or sooner, unless some major breakthrough occurs.
That was the word Wednesday during a special meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, which was attended by about 30 people including a number of merchants at the troubled shopping center on U.S. 52.
The meeting was called so an update could be given on ongoing repair problems that have not been corrected by the New York-based owner of Mayberry Mall, despite an official order being issued by the Surry County Inspections Department.
And that update did not include good news from Brandon Hawks, county building codes administrator, who said that as it now stands, an order to vacate, or close, the mall will be effective as of Feb. 1. The shopping center’s closure could come even sooner, if fire-sprinkler systems are compromised by freezing conditions due to the exposed roof — which would create a clear hazard to tenants and shoppers if a blaze occurred.
The mall’s structural condition has been an escalating concern since a portion housing a closed Kmart store was condemned last spring due to its leaky roof. Similar issues have occurred elsewhere in the building, except for a Belk department store that is separately owned.
Rust damage in the mall’s upper portion creates a potential for collapses and hazards also have been linked to ceiling tiles deteriorating and falling. Additionally, rain water entering the structure through the faulty roof has caused mold, posing an environmental risk to occupants.
In October, a 60-day grace period was set aside to postpone major enforcement actions — including closing or demolishing the mall. This occurred after officials learned that an out-of-town company, later reported to be Rural King, a farm implements retailer based in Illinois, was interested in purchasing the Kmart portion and possibly the rest of the mall.
That 60-day period, to allow sale negotiations to continue, ended on Tuesday — leading to a somber summation of the situation by Hawks at Wednesday’s meeting.
“The sale has not been completed at this time and negotiations are on hold for the purchase of the mall,” he told city officials and audience members in announcing the Feb.1 order for the center to be vacated.
If the roof repairs are made by owner Mike Kohan, potentially costing $1.6 million, or if the mall is sold, which would be accompanied by a delay to allow the new owner to do so, “then the order may be rescinded,” Hawks said.
But, he added, Kohan has failed to come through so far with repairs for a shopping center that has been deteriorating for years.
Rural King factor
All this is occurring amid continuing interest in the former Kmart space by Rural King, which remains in the running to acquire that portion of the mall including an active contract for the transaction.
“I don’t think it’s a secret anymore,” local Realtor Mark Rogers said of the involvement by Rural King, which was disclosed publicly for the first time in a Wednesday newspaper article.
“It’s a valid contract signed by buyer and seller,” Rogers, who has been working to make the sale a reality, said of the purchase agreement.
“They have not terminated the contract,” he said of the position of Rural King officials as of shortly before Wednesday’s meeting, “but they are at the point where the contract could be terminated at any time.”
Rogers said they are awaiting repairs to the Kmart roof by Kohan as well as asbestos-abatement and other improvement work. “None, to our knowledge, has been completed.”
However, it was noted that there has been some recent movement toward the Kmart repairs on the part of Kohan in providing funding for that work to a contractor.
At one point Wednesday, Hawks reminded the gathering that the job of the Surry Building Inspections Department is not to further a sale, but ensure needed repairs to the mall.
“Our interest is to make the building safe.”
The Feb. 1 order to vacate will allow mall businesses, which numbered about 20 earlier this year with some since closing, to get through the Christmas shopping season. It also will provide time for liquidating inventories and taking related steps toward finding new locations.
Hawks said this would not affect the Belk store at the mall, which occupies a freestanding structure, and possibly JCPenney there, which also might separate itself to continue operating.
He mentioned another issue involving the need to work with the city fire marshal to drain the sprinkler systems at the shopping center, with utility services to the mall also to be disconnected by Feb. 1.
Yet with winter coming fast and the possibility of exposed pipes in the sprinkler system freezing and bursting, the mall closure could come sooner due to the absence of fire protection.
Business operators in the mall were afforded the opportunity to ask questions or make comments during Wednesday’s meeting, and several took advantage of that.
Lisa Ring, owner of a Hallmark store there, said she feared a “big white elephant” being left on U.S. 52 if the mall is reduced to just Belk and JCPenney.
“Everybody that leaves that mall makes an impact,” she said of the shaky situation now with stores already having closed or considering that.
However, in response to a question from Commissioner Jon Cawley, Ring said she believed local governmental officials have been more than patient with Kohan.
“But I still want the mall to stay open — I want it to be fixed,” said the Hallmark store owner, who made a $50,000 investment to upgrade her business about two years ago which will be for naught if the mall closes.
A similar view was offered by Belk official David Clark, who said that retail chain recently invested about $600,000 to refurbish its store here.
“The last thing we want to see is the mall fail and this thing go south,” Clark said.
Kiley Schuyler, the manager of Maurices, a women’s clothing store there, said Wednesday that mall merchants are ready for a resolution one way or the other about its future, while citing a lack of heat, among other problems.
“An answer is all we want, whether it’s a bad answer or a good answer,” Schuyler said of being able to make firm plans about staying or leaving. “I think just making a final decision is going to be important for everyone in the mall.”
“The tenants are really caught in a Catch-22 right now,” Hawks agreed.
“Everybody here understands it’s an unsafe place,” Cawley said of Mayberry Mall at the end of Wednesday’s meeting.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.