Scott Smith wasn’t wearing shining armor and didn’t ride into town on a horse, but the shopping center developer from South Carolina could turn out to be the savior of Mayberry Mall in Mount Airy.
Smith, who is president of WRS Inc., a real estate firm in Mount Pleasant near Charleston, showed up unexpectedly at a Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday afternoon when city officials were updated on the mall’s scheduled closure on Feb. 1.
City officials basically were advised at that meeting by Surry County Building Codes Administrator Brandon Hawks that recent efforts to have Mike Kohan, the New York owner of the local mall, invest funds for repairs hadn’t progressed as hoped.
The center’s unsafe structural condition, mainly due to a leaking roof, led to a portion formerly occupied by a Kmart store to be condemned last spring. And similar problems have affected the rest of the building and gone unchecked by Kohan despite being declared a public health threat due to falling ceiling tiles, mold and other issues.
This led to an order being issued in late 2017 to close the mall effective Feb. 1 (minus a Belk store there that is freestanding) with electrical service cut off and the doors locked.
City officials’ initial discussion at Thursday afternoon’s session, a recessed meeting from another a week before, indicated that they were prepared to proceed with the order to vacate the mall on Feb. 1. There were considering allowing extra time for tenants to move everything out, with the general public to be prohibited from entering the shopping center while that occurs.
As they haggled over how much additional time to allow, Smith — the South Carolina developer who had sat at the back of the room while listening to the discussion along with some mall merchants — walked to a speaker’s podium and introduced himself.
Smith, whose firm has developed numerous shopping centers in the Southeast, said he was unaware of the Mayberry Mall situation until being contacted by some of the merchants there before Christmas. Those notifying him are associated with national and regional chains that have stores in his other centers, the developer explained.
“They asked if I wanted to buy the mall — most of these tenants don’t want to leave the mall,” he said of merchants who are enjoying success there and have no other places in town to relocate.
After being contacted, the South Carolina businessman visited Mount Airy and has worked in recent days to explore the possible purchase of the shopping center.
“I have been in conversations with Mike Kohan — we do not have a price agreement,” said Smith, who added that he had dealt with the New York businessman once before, regarding a possible transaction that was derailed by the 2008 recession. “I do not have a signed contract today.”
Not only would the South Carolina developer acquire the mall, he‘d also pursue repairs. “I want to re-roof it myself,” he told city officials Thursday. “This is a good piece of property.”
Smith said he is not looking to buy the former Kmart portion, for which a purchase contract has been forged with Rural King, a Midwest-based farm products company, but would be if not for that agreement.
The clock is still ticking concerning the fate of the troubled shopping complex located on U.S. 52-North.
While Smith’s emergence seemed to be a welcome development, the dark cloud of its scheduled closure on Feb. 1 hovered over Thursday’s meeting.
With board members stopping short of rescinding, or amending, the order to vacate on that date, they did give Smith one week to formalize purchase plans, at which point a change in that order could be made, based on Thursday’s discussion.
Smith sought to buy some degree of time or leeway to provide an assurance to merchants to prevent them from moving out — perhaps for good.
“Mount Airy is a good community,” the developer said. Yet it is not viewed as a major city and therefore national and regional chains with stores at the mall would not like to see its closure, and likely will be lost to the local community as a result.
“It’s hard to get tenants to come back to this town,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, merchants are uncertain about ordering spring inventories and other operational plans for the next few weeks. “They’re on pins and needles,” the South Carolina developer said.
City officials, especially Commissioner Jon Cawley, were reluctant to rescind the order to vacate which now exists. Cawley said this would be a disservice to Hawks, the building codes official, and city Fire Marshal Chris Fallaw, who have worked hard to alleviate the threat to public safety posed by the mall.
“If we rescind this, we’ve taken the teeth out of everything you all will ever do,” the North Ward commissioner told Hawks and Fallaw.
Cawley implied that the latest development could be just another false hope added to the list since August, when Mount Airy officials became heavily involved in the mall situation.
“We’ve been told and told and told, just give him (Kohan) this and that — and we’ve done that since August.”
However, the final consensus among board members Thursday afternoon was to give Smith a chance to work out a deal with Kohan, and revisit the matter next week when Smith plans to return here.
“What’s seven more days?” Mayor David Rowe said.
“I don’t think that’s unreasonable given the magnitude of closing the mall,” Rowe added. “Mr. Smith, get on your horse and get it done.”
“I appreciate you’re coming,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley told the South Carolina developer.
“Sometimes the 11th hour is not the end of time,” she said regarding events that happen at the last minute. “It’s the beginning.”
Dean Brown, another commissioner, seemed happy for a solution that would remove the mall’s present owner from the equation.
“I love the mall,” Brown said.
“But I see we can’t do businesses with that Mr. Kohan; he is a crook — I don’t know what else to call him.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.