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Despite 'doomsday headlines,' University Mall owners optimistic about its future
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Despite 'doomsday headlines,' University Mall owners optimistic about its future

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CARBONDALE — Despite Macy’s exit and JCPenney’s planned closure creating uncertainty for University Mall in Carbondale, its owners and other retailers are optimistic for a rebound.

Elliot Nassim, president of Mason Asset Management, which co-owns the mall with Namdar Realty Group, said that he was “very disappointed” to learn of JCPenney’s plans. As part of a bankruptcy reorganization, JCPenney is in the process of closing 154 stores nationwide, including its Carbondale and Mount Vernon locations.

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Still, Nassim said he continues to have a positive outlook for University Mall and the other properties the New York-based companies operate. Efforts are underway to identify new and different tenants, he told The Southern in an emailed response to questions.

“We have always felt that the retail industry is evolving, despite what doomsday headlines would have you believe,” he said. “We understand the landscape is changing, and it is our goal to work with each and every property to evaluate the offerings, leveraging tenants outside the traditional retail sector.”

Nassim said that he believes malls will continue to draw consumers while diversifying the amenities and entertainment options they offer. “For example,” he said, “today’s malls are not only anchored by department stores, but include entertainment, health care and fitness studios — and this is the vision we see for our properties, as well. This creates an exciting opportunity for the communities that surround these properties.”

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Erkan Alkis, who manages Embroidery Station, his family-owned business that has had its home in the mall for 17 years, said that the loss of Macy’s and JCPenney does affect other tenants because it may reduce overall mall traffic. “We hate to see businesses close down,” he said. Still, Alkis said he tries to focus on the positive.

Stores in the mall were all forced to close down when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s initial stay-at-home order went into effect on March 21. They were provided the opportunity to reopen when all of Illinois entered Phase 3 of Pritzker’s five-stage Restore Illinois plan on May 28. Alkis said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how quickly customers have returned to his business and the mall in general. “There’s still potential to grow here,” Alkis siad.

In addition to Embroidery Station, other stores that have reopened include American Eagle, Bed Bath & Beyond, Buckle, Christopher & Banks, Finish Line, Hibbett Sports, Hot Topic, Journeys, Kay Jewelers, LaNails, Maurice’s, Old Navy, Cricket Wireless, Ross, Shoe Department, Ulta, Sunglass Hut and JCPenney, for close-out sales.

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Nassim said that employees are equipped with protective face masks and gloves while on the property. Everyone who works at the mall is encouraged to follow all public health guidelines, including frequent hand washing. And anyone who is sick with flu-like symptoms or has a temperature above 100.4 is required to stay home, he said.

Dustin Shelten, a supervisor at JCPenney, said that employees have not been notified yet of what date the store will close. Right now, he said, all merchandise is on sale, up to 40% off. JCPenney employs about 50 workers at its Carbondale location.

Mason Asset Management and Namdar Realty Group own the space that houses JCPenney. Macy’s had owned its own block of the mall until its closure, but it has since been acquired by Mason and Namdar.

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While losing two big box stores is a blow, the mall’s most recent chapter has had bright spots, too. In February, VIP Cinemas, a family owned, independent theater company headquartered in Charleston, Illinois, announced plans to renovate and move into the mall's shuttered theater complex. That space has been empty for more than two years, since AMC Classic Carbondale 8 shut down.

While plans to open the theater in late March were derailed by the pandemic, VIP Cinemas is moving forward and expects to begin showing movies beginning July 10, according to Jake McSparin, the company’s executive vice president. Four of the eight screens at the complex will be open beginning that date, and the company hopes to have the other four open by September.

The theater has been significantly overhauled, with new seating and equipment, he said. “I think people will be surprised by how different it is,” he said. Theaters are not allowed to open until Phase 4 of the state’s Restore Illinois plan, which all four regions are on track to enter on June 26. The state has yet to issue its guidance to theater operators, but said that VIP Cinemas will operate within the guidelines of seating capacity limitations and other recommended measures. “We’re very, very excited” to open, he said.

Andrew Erbes, who manages Gloria Jean’s Coffees, said University Mall has been a good home to his family-owned business for 16 years.

Erbes hasn’t reopened his store yet since he was forced to close its doors by the pandemic. But the closure is only temporary, he said. He’s waiting for the right time to open up from a public safety and economic standpoint. Erbes said the pandemic has brought with it economic uncertainties for not only the mall, but the entire region. JCPenney’s closure hurts, but he also believes the mall, and Carbondale’s retail sector overall, will adjust and thrive.

Erbes said that one positive that has come out of the devastating global pandemic is that it has reminded people of the importance — and fragility — of locally established businesses. “I think before the pandemic, a lot of people were shopping online,” he said. “Now, I think we’re going to see a movement to shop local, and to shop brick-and-mortar stores. People are realizing that once they’re gone — they’re gone.”

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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