A retail chain eyeing Mount Airy’s Mayberry Mall is now out of the mix.
“Rural King has withdrawn its contract to buy the Kmart portion of the mall,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell disclosed Thursday night during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners. He had spoken earlier Thursday with a lawyer representing the mall’s owner.
Rural King, which specializes in agricultural products, for months had been pursuing a new location in the former Kmart store.
The announcement involving Rural King’s pullout was just the latest development in what has been a tumultuous year for the shopping center on U.S. 52-North. It fell into major disrepair due to a leaky roof and other problems and was even threatened with closure on Feb. 1 due to public health and safety hazards.
Just before that occurred, the 50-year-old mall appeared to win a reprieve when a South Carolina developer, T. Scott Smith, announced an agreement to buy the bulk of the mall from its longtime New York owner, Mike Kohan, and make repairs.
Meanwhile, Rural King was pursuing a separate purchase of the former Kmart space that had been vacated around December 2016.
Rural King subsequently filed a lawsuit claiming it had the right of first refusal to acquire the remainder of the shopping center, not including a freestanding, separately owned Belk department store. The matter has been mired in litigation for months since.
“That litigation will be dismissed, and there will be some settlement worked out,” said Campbell, who has been monitoring the situation on behalf of the municipality through his role as city attorney.
This is despite a “considerable amount” of legal fees being spent so far by Rural King, which apparently decided to cut its losses, according to Campbell.
“I think the costs to fix it exceeded the value,” he said of rehabbing the interior of the former Kmart store, where roof work has been completed — funded by the mall’s present owner.
The remaining expenses of getting a Rural King outlet operational there were higher than anticipated, Campbell said.
WRS Inc., a real estate firm in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina — of which Smith is the president and CEO — remains in the purchase picture.
“They have a contract for the rest of the mall,” Campbell said.
He was uncertain Thursday night about whether WRS also will be interested in buying the former Kmart location due to Rural King’s withdrawal.
In the past, Smith has indicated a desire to own the entire shopping center, minus Belk.
“So in terms of ownership of the mall, it’s status quo for the foreseeable future,” the city attorney said.
Commissioner Jim Armbrister expressed support Thursday night for the city government doing as much as it can to stimulate progress at the mall from this point forward.
Armbrister said that should include contacting the Surry County building inspections unit that has sought to have the structural deficiencies repaired; Kohan; and Smith, to pinpoint what his intentions are at present. He also said timelines for progress need to be identified.
“So we can make decisions as a city, to see if there’s anything we can do to possibly help,” Armbrister said of his overall intent.
That also was the consensus of the commissioners as a whole, which resulted in a 5-0 vote to pursue his suggestions.
“The city’s getting blamed,” said Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who had asked that an update on the Mayberry Mall situation be placed on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting.
Brinkley said she had been on the receiving end of numerous questions about the matter which intimated that Mount Airy officials had not intervened early enough when the mall began going downhill from a structural standpoint:
“Why did the city let this go? … Was it wrong for us to stay out? … How involved does a board get?”
Brinkley said that “those are some of the questions I’ve been getting.”
Two stores in the shopping center, JCPenney and Bath & Body Works, recently closed as a result of the ownership quagmire and repair issues.
At this time last year, Mayberry Mall was reported to have about 17 stores altogether.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.