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What’s next for the Wilson Mall?

As buildings decay, owners seek ‘catalyst project’

Posted on April 22, 2021

Updated on April 23, 2021

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Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at plants on Wednesday outside the Roses store at the former Wilson Mall.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at plants on Wednesday outside the Roses store at the former Wilson Mall.

Since the Wilson Mall shuttered in 2015, this sign on Parkwood Boulevard has taken a beating.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Since the Wilson Mall shuttered in 2015, this sign on Parkwood Boulevard has taken a beating.

Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at flowers for sale Wednesday outside Roses at the former Wilson Mall.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at flowers for sale Wednesday outside Roses at the former Wilson Mall.

Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at plants on Wednesday outside the Roses store at the former Wilson Mall.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at plants on Wednesday outside the Roses store at the former Wilson Mall.

Since the Wilson Mall shuttered in 2015, this sign on Parkwood Boulevard has taken a beating.

Brie Handgraaf | Times

Since the Wilson Mall shuttered in 2015, this sign on Parkwood Boulevard has taken a beating.

Since the Wilson Mall shuttered in 2015, this sign on Parkwood Boulevard has taken a beating.
Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at flowers for sale Wednesday outside Roses at the former Wilson Mall.
Joyce Mitchell and Mattie Simon look at plants on Wednesday outside the Roses store at the former Wilson Mall.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 252-265-7821

The defunct Wilson Mall sits in an increasing state of disrepair, while scattered around it are thriving businesses supported by loyal customers who go to the movies, shop for a new outfit or grab a sausage biscuit on the way to work.

Yet dozens of acres of prime real estate sit idle at the intersection of Ward Boulevard and Tarboro Street. The owners have enlisted local leaders’ help to remove the eyesore from the popular crossroads.

“The win for the community is not what comes back there. The win for the community is getting (the mall) down,” Hull Property Group Vice President John Mulherin said. “The win for AMC is getting it down. The win for Abrams and Roses is getting the buildings down, because it is a blight.”

THE BIG PICTURE

The dilapidation didn’t happen overnight.

Starting in the 1960s, the retail epicenter pulled shops from Wilson’s downtown district as individual stores were built, and property owners in the late 1970s enclosed the shopping center to create the mall.

Changes in shopping habits in the coming decades led to major retailers’ closure and stores’ relocation to the Raleigh Road Parkway corridor.

RELATED STORY: Mall's rise, fall mirrored national trends 

Mulherin admits demolishing the former mall is the first priority but estimates the cost at several million dollars, with measures to protect remaining businesses adding to the price tag.

“We’re not proud of the property,” he said. “Reputationally, it is not good for us. Reputationally, it is not good for the city, and it is not reputationally good for the county or the hospital, which is the biggest neighbor.”

As such, Hull has brought a variety of local leaders to the table in the hopes of collaborating to find the right “catalyst project.”

“I think we can all agree that the best thing is to have it demolished, and whether it becomes something medical-related, a call center or who knows what, it is going to take a multi-million dollar investment to tear it down and get it to where the property is marketable for some other use,” he said. “When it requires that kind of investment, you need a catalyst project that justifies the cost of demolition.”

Mulherin said Hull could have transformed the once-popular mall into a flea market, indoor storage or a distribution center, but the owners want to find “the right use for the community.”

“To be a good steward of the property isn’t necessarily about just taking any tenant you can find. Being a good steward at this point is actually not letting the wrong tenant in,” he said. “It is a hard concept to grasp, but the era of retail at the mall is gone, and we could have raced to the bottom by just choosing any tenant to get it occupied. We have chosen, though, not to junk it up with something that is not conducive to the overall needs of the area.”

Hull currently owns a variety of parcels near the intersection, including the main mall building, multiple shuttered bank buildings, the recently vacant Firestone, Abrams and Bojangles as well as the theater and Kroger, which closed in 2004. The Georgia-based company also bought two wooded lots on the 1600 block of Parkwood Boulevard in 2020.

“We think the property itself has great potential to be redeveloped once the mall is demolished,” Mulherin said. “That redevelopment can take a number of different avenues, but nothing is wrong with the location of the property.”

Due to the proximity to Wilson Medical Center, company officials pitched a plan for medical offices in 2016, but Mulherin said the proposal didn’t get further than the preliminary phases. Hospital CEO Mark Holyoak said he feels the current inventory of clinic space is sufficient.

“We are supportive of the idea of bulldozing the land and creating something that would help support the community’s vision,” Holyoak said. “There were some ideas discussed of creating retirement housing, which is also a need.”

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Several businesses survived the main building’s closure, but the blight and reduced traffic ultimately led several shops to close their doors in recent years. The popular K&W Cafeteria boasted steady business until the pandemic hit and forced a temporary closure. K&W officials, though, announced last summer that they wouldn’t reopen at Wilson Mall.

Roses store manager Andrea Hall said she worried the cafeteria closure would hamper sales, especially on senior discount Wednesdays. She was pleasantly surprised that the mall and restaurant closures haven’t reduced the regional discount retailer’s popularity.

“We do have a lot of customers, especially at Christmas, who want to find out how to get into the mall, but we have to explain there is no mall and it is just us,” Hall said. “I think they are often just in town to visit family for the holidays, and they don’t know the mall closed.”

Corporate leadership put several Roses store remodels on hold due to the pandemic, but in December, the company surprised Hall with plans to make some store upgrades in the new year.

“The grand reopening was April 1, but we never closed the store,” she said. “We closed the front entrance and pretty much the entire store changed with a lot of stuff moving and expanding. They also painted the whole store.”

Hall said two new registers were added to the remaining store entrance, with customers quickly adjusting to the change.

Around the corner from Roses at the theater, customers are once again catching the latest Hollywood blockbuster on the big screen.

AMC closed roughly 600 theaters in March 2020 due to COVID-19, and leaders immediately began work on a plan to reopen them safely. Since projectors have resumed playing across the country, AMC employees have stepped up disinfecting procedures, increased contactless customer options, required masks and blocked off rows to facilitate social distancing.

“We’ve surveyed guests for years, but the scores we’ve gotten back since reopening have been record highs, especially for cleanliness,” said Ryan Noonan, director of corporate communications.

The Wilson theater reopened in October and currently is operating three days a week.

“Going to the movies is an iconic part of America, but when the pandemic showed up, everything shut down,” Noonan said. “We’re working to build that back, and the best way to do that is for everyone to enjoy a night at the movies, then tell your friends and family how great it was.”

The forced closure hit the chain hard, though, with company officials reportedly planning to close 10% of AMC’s American theaters. Various factors influence the decision to close a theater, and AMC officials said they don’t comment on speculation, but Noonan remained optimistic about the future of Wilson’s AMC Classic 10.

MANAGING PROPERTY, EXPECTATIONS

While the remaining businesses are working to survive, efforts to battle the empty buildings’ further decline are constant.

The Wilson Police Department said officers patrol the mall property on a daily basis, while Hull employs a local maintenance technician who visits often.

“We know people have gotten in there in the past, so we monitor that on a very regular basis,” Mulherin said. “If they are getting in, we’ll take care of it.”

Police responded to 14 burglary or vandalism calls at the mall property in 2018 and 2019, but no arrests were made.

Members of the city’s community improvement team performed inspections in recent years, identifying nuisances needing to be cleaned up or properties needing to be secured. Wilson officials said mall management has corrected the violations when contacted.

“The city has and will continue to help the owners find potential redevelopment opportunities and link interested parties together,” said City Manager Grant Goings. “Malls across the U.S. are closing, and there are no easy solutions as retail is changing.”

While there’s no precedent for offering financial incentives to Hull for demolition, Goings said the city “would likely only consider doing so if part of a larger redevelopment project.”

A prevalent rumor posits that the mall property would increase in value — resulting in higher property taxes — if Hull demolished the blighted buildings, but Mulherin said that isn’t the case thanks to successful appeals to the 2016 revaluation.

“Actually, the vast majority of the ad valorem valuation is currently in the land and not the buildings,” Mulherin said. “So we don’t have that concern, and if that was to happen, there is a legal process we could follow to address it.”

Hull has three redevelopment projects in its portfolio, all of which are defunct malls. One in Pennsylvania has been demolished and is available for redevelopment as Mulherin said Hull felt “it is just in the right location.”

The company’s former Tennessee mall is ready to be partially torn down thanks to a pilot agreement to save some of the retail center.

“The Wilson mall has a number of challenges that make it harder to redevelop,” Mulherin said. “There is an elementary school across the street, so could it be a school? There is not that need in the community. Would it be great as a 40-acre green space? Yes, but that doesn’t justify the significant investment I would need because there is no return on that.”

Former mall manager Tom Corbett said he recognizes the need for Hull to get a return on its investment to remove the blight.

“Ultimately it is going to take everybody, including the city and the county, to cooperate and help turn it around,” Corbett concluded. “You’ll have to give Hull credit that they are actively trying to find a use for the property. I don’t think they want it to sit there anymore than anyone else does, but they’ve got to find something to justify the demolition cost.”

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