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People walk past the former Sears store, now closed and vacant, in the Janesville Mall. The mall has vacancies, but management says the mall’s new owner is working to bring new tenants and more foot traffic.

JANESVILLE

At 1:30 on a Monday afternoon, a sprinkling of customers and mall walkers in exercise gear moved quietly past center court at the Janesville Mall.

Canned pop music played over the mall’s speakers. From the north end, a toddlers’ carousel ride tinkled out an electronic jingle that repeated every 45 seconds.

Aside from the music, the center court was quiet enough at midday for any conversation above a whisper to turn passing customers’ heads.

At center court, the turn of a head revealed at one end an empty former Sears store, its lights still on and its double escalator standing idle behind a clear plastic and metal security gate.

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A look through the window into the empty Sears store at the Janesville Mall.

In the other direction, the former Boston Store, which closed last summer, stood shuttered behind a locked steel curtain. The vacant store’s entryway was enshrouded by black screens blocking its interior from view.

Some might find omens in such sights, but Janesville Mall officials insisted things are better than they appeared. For starters, the mall is not closing, managers said.

In fact, the mall has new tenant leases in the pipeline, and managers now plan to market the mall’s common areas for local events they hope will cultivate more foot traffic.

Management denies a host of rumors, including posts on social media that the mall’s remaining anchor stores plan to pull out or that the mall’s new ownership intends to demolish the mall to develop apartments.

Some mall merchants have combated the rumors by emblazoning their shop windows with orange memos declaring in boldface letters: “THE MALL IS NOT CLOSING!”

Yet, the shuttered Boston Store and Sears alone leave gaping vacancies of about 200,000 square feet in the heart of the mall. Vacancies also have spread to smaller spaces near center court. Kay Jewelers moved out last month to a new location along Milton Avenue. Yankee Candle Co. pulled out a week ago, a casualty of a corporate conglomerate opting not to renew its lease.

All told, about one-third of the mall’s 1 million-square-foot retail footprint now stands empty, according to a Gazette inventory of the mall’s vacant and occupied stores. As of last week, 13 small store spaces stood vacant in the mall’s interior. About four closed within the last month, mall merchants said.

The bulk of the defunct storefronts are near center court, a stone’s throw from the empty Boston Store and Sears.

The mall also is closing one hour earlier each day, a move management says allows stores to save on overhead by closing when customer traffic is thinnest.

‘Just sad’

A middle-aged woman, who did not want to give her name, said she doesn’t want to believe the rumors.

The woman, who was pushing a black Kohl’s cart with a few items inside, stood under the skylights in the mall’s center court on a Monday afternoon. She said she has shopped at the mall since the 1970s, and it makes her “just sad” to see the once-stalwart department stores have gone dark.

The woman tried to describe the emptiness as she looked at the closed Sears and Boston Store, retailers that for years served as the mall’s center entrances. She pulled a Kleenex from her purse and wiped tears from her eyes.

“It’s not fair,” the woman said. “A year from now, I wonder what you’ll see. I don’t know. I’m just crossing my fingers.”

The mall’s new owner, RockStep Capital, is trying to negotiate a deal to buy the two-story Sears store from its bankrupt owner, Sears. Sears is the only property on site that the mall doesn’t own outright. That means the mall must buy the space to control its future use.

Any deal would have to wait for other decisions in Sears’s complex, national bankruptcy proceedings, the mall’s owners said.

RockStep, a privately held Texas company, bought the mall from publicly traded CBL & Associates Properties for $18 million in spring 2018. It had already been working toward the purchase in the midst of Boston Store’s plans to close.

RockStep president Andy Weiner said late last year RockStep had written into its own plans the assumption Sears would eventually close.

RockStep now is marketing the former Boston Store space, and mall managers say it had drawn a few tentative letters of intent from potential tenants.

Nothing’s come through yet, and the negotiations are complex and confidential, mall management said. Julie Cubbage, the longtime, onsite general manager of the mall, said that means RockStep can’t give curious shoppers or even some mall merchants any details as it works on deals to try to fill yawning vacancies in the mall’s anchor spaces.

Meanwhile, rumors and whispers of the mall’s purported demise continue to swirl in the community and within the mall’s concourse.

Cubbage said she’s frustrated and disheartened by the rumors. She believes they threaten the health of a mall whose tenants already are dealing with major changes—changes Cubbage says she and others hope can bring about renewal and rebirth.

“Change is hard, and it takes a while for change to happen. But, you know, it feels like people aren’t even giving the new owner, RockStep, a chance. It’s only been six or seven months. But some people are just putting on their boots and saying, ‘Hey, this mall is going to hell in a handbag,’” Cubbage said.

“The mall walkers walk around here saying those things. We’re seeing it on Facebook. Whenever we try to post something to let people know about sales going on in the mall, I mean, right away, the negative comments start.”

Cubbage, a 14-year veteran at the Janesville Mall, saw the mall brimming with retail and center-aisle kiosk merchants in the boom years of the early 2000s. She saw the retail challenges of the Great Recession and the rise of online shopping. Now, in a time of supposed economic resurgence, large swaths of the mall sit eerily vacant.

The recent anchor store closures have hurt foot traffic, Cubbage and mall merchants said. But Cubbage said box store closures are common to malls nationwide that face a sea change led in large part by the ill fortunes of national chains such as JC Penney, Bon-Ton and Sears.

Over the last half-decade, those retailers have shuttered hundreds of stores in mall markets throughout the U.S.

The national average retail vacancy rate at malls rose to just above 9 percent late last year, according to national mall analyst Retail Dive. The vacancies climbed at the fastest clip in a decade, the agency reported.

Malls with vacancy rates of less than 10 percent are considered healthy by most mall analysts. Nationally, more than 80 percent of malls have vacancy rates of 10 percent or more.

The Janesville Mall’s vacancy rate has more than doubled since fall of 2017, when a sale prospectus showed about 12 percent of its spaces were vacant.

RockStep bought the Janesville Mall at a steep discount, and the company has said that means it can offer competitive tenant deals. That’s likely to become important as more leases come up for renewal.

Weiner has urged mall merchants and local stakeholders to be patient. He has also said new tenants of some anchor space at Boston Store or the former JC Penney, which face away from the retail corridor of Milton Avenue, might become office space or some other, non-retail use.

And, he has cautioned, it might take a few years to fill all the vacancies.

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A sign for a small business expo sits between two empty storefronts inside the Janesville Mall.

Wanted: Foot traffic

Cubbage has managed the mall since 2012. She has seen Boston Store, JC Penney and Sears close.. Those changes she said gave her “many, many sleepless nights.”

Cubbage also has been part of efforts to see the mall bounce back. She brimmed with pride in 2015, when the mall, fresh off a multimillion dollar facelift, landed a Dick’s Sporting Goods and an Ulta Beauty that plugged part of a huge gap on the mall’s north end created by the departure of JC Penney in 2014.

Cubbage and Weiner say the two remaining anchors at opposite ends of the mall—Dick’s Sporting Goods on the north and Kohl’s on the south—remain high-performing stores.

The trouble of late is big box and small stores vacant at and around the mall’s center court. Management is looking for ways to cultivate more foot traffic throughout the mall, where dozens of shops, some longtime tenants, still operate, Cubbage said.

A few small spaces have leases being worked out and could fill in the next month or two, Cubbage said.

One space is the future location of a nonprofit children’s museum that’s now under fundraising. Cubbage said the mall will announce soon a new, small-store lease that would bring in a business that applies custom graphics to apparel.

Another lease in the works could bring a classic barber shop to the mall, she said.

Those uses, Cubbage said, show the mall and its ownership is willing to work with independent, locally-owned businesses.

A factor working against foot traffic is that customers must enter at one end of the mall or the other; the center entryways at the former Boston Store and Sears are sealed off.

One merchant at center court said she has worked in the mall for almost a decade. The woman asked not to be named because the national retailer she works for did not authorize her to comment.

She said February, Valentine’s Day in particular, typically brings a huge seasonal demand for the goods she sells. But last month, the first full month of both Sears and Boston Store being closed, was the slowest February she has ever had. She was down hundreds of sales.

“My clientele is older, and my customers can’t get to me anymore. I’ve had them call and say, ‘How can I get in the mall now?’ And I have to tell them, ‘Well, you have to come in the mall at one end or the other and walk through. And they’re like, ‘I can’t physically walk that far,’” the woman said.

She smoothed her work apron with her hands.

“Well, that’s just great,” she said.

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People walk past the former Yankee Candle that recently closed at the Janesville Mall.

What isn’t leaving

Cubbage said one rumor she has seen on social media is that the mall intends to allow most or all its stores to close so the owner can then bulldoze the buildings to make way for new apartments.

She considers the rumor bizarre.

“I get that Janesville is in need of housing, but I don’t understand how people think a new developer is going to come in and buy a mall property for $18 million, then pay to tear it down, then pay to build some apartment complexes, and then wait for those to fill up so they can start generating income to pay for all of that,” Cubbage said. “Why would somebody do that? I just don’t think that’s real logical.”

Another rumor Cubbage said has made the rounds is that anchor store Kohl’s is leaving the mall to build a standalone store somewhere else in Janesville.

The rumor might stem from Kohl’s recent announcement in a federal filing that it could close or vacate some of its mall locations to downsize its brick-and-mortar presence and put more focus on growing its e-commerce business.

Weiner, the RockStep president, wrote in an email to The Gazette that Kohl’s has no plans to leave the mall.

“No, they are not closing. Very, very strong store, and the store leases additional space for storage. NOT GOING ANYWHERE,” he wrote.

Cubbage said she can’t discuss specific details of leases, but she indicated Kohl’s recently had an option to extend its lease at the mall and did so. She said Kohl’s warehousing at the mall has grown steadily, and Kohl’s considers the site a growing hub for its e-commerce.

The mall’s former owner, CBL, in 2015 pumped millions of dollars into renovations, but Cubbage said CBL slashed the mall’s local marketing budget in the years before it sold the building.

Under RockStep, some things have changed.

Cubbage was hired on by RockStep as was most of her management staff. RockStep hired a marketing and events coordinator—former mall retail employee Jamie Balsiger.

Balsiger works alongside Cubbage to improve the mall’s social media presence, and she plans to bring regular community events inside the mall to boost foot traffic—including a small business expo Saturday, March 23.

Balsiger and Cubbage said the mall plans a free “children’s expo” in August that would bring children’s activities to the mall’s parking lot and its interior concourse in time for the mall’s back-to-school sales.

Tabitha Ramsey, manager at the SHOE DEPT. store, has worked at the mall for almost a decade. She said the mall early this year tried an event it had abandoned for a long time: “sidewalk sales.”

Store managers along the mall’s interior set out items on sale at tables outside the stores. Ramsey said the event seemed to do well.

“I sold the shoes I put out on. I know that,” she said.

Ramsey said she believes the mall owners could look at more alternative, temporary uses of vacant space. She wonders if a winter farmer’s market in a vacant space could cultivate foot traffic.

“You could easily pull carts into the Boston Store and do something like that. You know, it’s still bringing in your crowds of people who are shopping. They’d be here,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey said forces playing out for chain retail companies don’t define the place where she spends a big part of her life.

“For a company like Bon-Ton, it wasn’t our location that was the problem. It wasn’t the Janesville Mall not being good enough that put that company under and shut it down. That’s not on us. People need to understand that because this is still our mall,” Ramsey said.

“I tell people every day that if they keep coming here for what’s still here and for what does come here in the future, then it stays our mall.”

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