DOBSON — With a roomful of people listening, including local government officials and Mayberry Mall tenants who related horror stories of conditions there, the mall’s New York owner promised repairs Monday, via conference call, to forestall its threatened closure.
The deteriorating condition of the longtime shopping center on U.S. 52-North in Mount Airy has been a source of concern in recent months, including the condemnation in April of the former Kmart building by Surry County building codes officials. Public health hazards also have been cited in other parts of the mall that has about 17 stores in all, with several tenants recently relocating due to structural issues.
Matters came to a head during a hearing Monday when about 25 people gathered in a conference room at the county government building in Dobson, for what amounted to a confrontation with Mike Kohan, the owner of the mall. He is based in Great Neck, New York.
Kohan agreed, during a telephone call lasting about 35 minutes, to put money into an escrow account up front to facilitate the repairs to address unsafe conditions, for which a 120-day timetable was stipulated.
In the absence of such an agreement — which was not finalized Monday and officially will be spelled out in a written order — Mayberry Mall faced closure due to repairs being further postponed after months of delay already and posing ongoing public health threats.
Among those assembled were Surry officials including County Attorney Ed Woltz; Building Codes Administrator Brandon Hawks; commissioners Larry Johnson and Larry Phillips, who both represent Mount Airy on the county board of commissioners; County Manager Chris Knopf; and Sandra Snow, assistant county manager for human resources and operations.
Mount Airy governmental representatives attending included Mayor David Rowe, City Manager Barbara Jones, Police Chief Dale Watson, Codes Enforcement Officer Bill Beamer, Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Chris Fallaw and Community Development Director Martin Collins.
Also in attendance was Todd Tucker, who heads the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, and representatives of about seven businesses at the mall.
Complaints from tenants which spawned an investigation there during the spring by codes personnel determined structural issues throughout the building, including a leaky roof that has caused problems in the Kmart section and elsewhere.
Rust damage in the upper portion of the building has created a potential for collapses, and there is also a hazard with ceiling tiles deteriorating and falling, with both roof covering and decking needing to be replaced. Meanwhile, rainwater entering the building has posed an environmental risk to occupants, Hawks added
“The health issue is the mold,” he said of that consideration, which has caused a musty smell throughout the shopping center.
“It’s terrible — the minute you walk into the mall, you can smell it,” said Kiley Schuyler, the manager of Maurices, a women’s clothing store there. “There’s mold all up and down my wall.”
Noting that the store shares a wall with the Kmart building, Schuyler said other problems have included encountering a snake in her back room. “That’s not something as a tenant I should have to contend with,” she remarked.
Tom Little, district manager for another mall store, The Shoe Department, said during Monday’s meeting that “a big gaping hole” appeared in a restroom there.
“Waterfall” problems also have occurred in the building during heavy rains, based on Monday’s discussion.
Hawks said the purpose of the conference call was to give Kohan a chance to discuss the present status of the situation and his plans for improving it — “and we will make a determination based on that,” including possibly issuing an order to continue repairs.
When the mall owner got on the phone with the assembled group, he expressed a desire to correct the problems as soon as possible, which had been previously ordered by the county under a time frame that culminated Monday.
“The mall means a lot to the tenants, the community and to me,” Kohan said over the speaker phone.
Roof repairs had been lined up for the mall, but were not completed due to some kind of “contractual disagreement,” as termed by the codes enforcement officer.
Kohan claimed Monday that the contractor proved not to have the necessary experience for the job and this led to enlisting a new one — even after the mall owner said he paid more than $40,000 to the first.
County officials seemed more concerned Monday with what happens now.
“We need some assurance for the inspections office that this work is going to be completed to correct the unsafe conditions,” Hawks told Kohan over the telephone, or else an order for everyone to vacate the premises would be issued.
“And that’s not good for anybody,” said the codes officer, who mentioned that concern for the affected businesses has been ongoing.
“If we’d had an individual building with an individual owner, we’d have probably condemned it three months ago.”
The codes enforcement officer said that in consultations with County Attorney Woltz on a possible solution, it was proposed than the mall owner put money into an escrow account for the work planned. Then those funds would be disbursed to the contractor as it progressed, based on it passing inspection.
“I need to know that you’re acceptable to do that,” Hawks told Kohan.
Kohan said he was, but that he would only be able to put in a certain percentage of the total, to be determined in further discussions this week with county officials.
“I’m not going to be able to put the whole money in escrow,” the mall owner said of the entire cost, adding that he could make an initial payment. “This has to be on an ongoing basis.”
Kohan said he also lacked a final contract price Monday to determine a percentage.
Officials skeptical, hopeful
“I’m a little concerned that you’re not willing to place the entire amount in escrow,” the county attorney told Kohan at one point, saying that definitive action is needed.
“We need to put the whole thing in writing so everyone is on the same page.”
After Kohan got off the line, Surry elected representatives wondered aloud if Kohan would follow through with his pledges to repair the roof, replace the ceiling tiles and correct the problems with mold.
“In my opinion, this man’s just drug it (out) and drug it and drug it,” Commissioner Johnson said in advocating a tough stance in making sure work gets done within the 120 days cited. “I wouldn’t give him any leniency on time.”
“This seems like an apparent cash-flow problem,” Commissioner Phillips said regarding Kohan’s position on the escrow account.
“This thing can work,” the attorney said. “The guy’s got to come up with some cash.”
“I’m sorry you guys are having to go through this,” Phillips told the tenants present.
But he said that despite everything, the mall’s future is bright. “It’s still a viable place — it is still that community hub where people congregate, and it’s got a ton of potential.”
Mayor Rowe said at the end of Monday’s meeting that the discussion with Kohan “was far better than I thought we were going to hear,” based on his plans for repairs and even word of a possible new tenant for the former Kmart space.
Yet Little, The Shoe Department official, expressed cautious optimism.
“I like what I’ve heard,” Little said, while adding that he was going to go back and tell the store’s home office, “keep working on Plan B.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.