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August 4, 2022 - 8:05am

Mall merchants have their say: the buckets are gone and City Centre is improving

posted by Joanne Beck in news, batavia, mall, city centre, notify, downtown.

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Editor's note: This is a continuation of a series about what's happening in the city of Batavia

A recent photo published with a mall-related story caught the attention of a couple of merchants.

It prominently featured a decorated bucket on the floor, and was a file photo from some time ago. Business owners Bob Chiarmonte, the unofficial president of the Mall Merchants Association, and Craig Jackson, co-owner of Batavia Stagecoach Florist, wanted to set the record straight that improvements are being made to Batavia City Centre.

“I think the city has put a lot of money into downtown revitalization, and the mall is right in the center of it. So to ignore it doesn't make sense to me, because it's right in the center of downtown. So I think they're making the right decision to try and improve the building,“ said Chiarmonte, who owns Classic Optical. “Personally, what I'd like to see is, there are properties that the city owns, and I'd like to see them sell the properties and get taxpayers and businesses back in here. The city owns a bunch of these properties that are vacant, and they're not doing anything.”

Several former businesses ended up in foreclosure and the sites ended up in the possession of the city. According to online assessment data, those sites include parcels 2, 11, formerly Valle’s, 17-20, formerly Gentleman Jim’s, Palace of Sweets and The Hiding Place, and 35 and 39, formerly Advanced Imaging. Other vacant spots, not owned by the city according to assessment data, are the former Sunny's restaurant, Escapeology, Miracle Ear, and JC Penney. (The Batavian reached out to city officials for comments late Wednesday afternoon, and will publish an update later this week.)

Aside from those empty parcels, Chiarmonte and Jackson were pleased with the new roof that’s been installed throughout the concourse area. The place no longer leaks, they agreed, and there hasn’t been a bucket to be seen in months. The city has expressed interest in renting out that space for events, and that’s something that both business owners would like to see.

They credited building maintenance manager Tom Phelps for doing “an excellent” job with making sure the concourse is clean, repaired as necessary, shoveled outside and seasonally decorated. Phelps even brought in some decorations for the place to be extra festive. This will be his fourth year putting up a Christmas tree, he said.

Phelps and two other city employees work in the Centre as part of a legal settlement between the merchants and municipality. That has been a plus, Jackson and Chiarmonte said, and Phelps is currently in the process of removing all of those ceiling tiles for a different look.

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Current concourse ceiling

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Concourse ceiling with tiles beginning to be removed

Chiarmonte believes there may be another option for mall management in the future.

“I think the city might be interested in getting one entity to come in and take over the facility. And I can't blame them for that, because I know that the city doesn't want to own them all. We've talked about it. And, personally, I think it would be an easier sell if the spaces were full. I don’t think they’re marketing it at all.”

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There didn’t appear to be any type of visual signage promoting those properties for sale. Each one sat there empty and quiet, with windows either boarded or papered, or otherwise obviously unoccupied. Jackson remembers when they had the draw of those stores, including J.C. Penney, with its name still on the wall over the interior doors.

Despite the lack of regular traffic, both businesses had customers in the hour or so The Batavian was there in the afternoon. And both said they have been doing well and would not have made a different choice if they could go back in time. Chiarmonte, and Jackson and his partner, Loretta DelPriore, own their properties outright, which means no rent to worry about. They each took advantage of what they felt were good deals — and cheaper than other space downtown or elsewhere in Batavia, they said.

COVID’s arrival hurt businesses in general, and mall merchants were no exception. Chiarmonte saw decreased business, and said there wasn’t a compromise to offer, as his optical shop is a hands-on enterprise. Jackson said revenues remained strong for his combination florist-tuxedo-collectibles shop. When COVID hit, the partners depended on delivery service and wire and online ordering through their website.

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He also referred to another bonus, a craft fair hosted by a local nonprofit in the concourse. With some 90 vendors,  the place was busy and a lot of people milled about, stopping into the shop, Jackson said.

“This place is available for events, and you don’t have water dripping on you,” Jackson said. “I think they should push kiosks, they used to have those, and people could try it out and work toward renting (a property).”

They’re both for anything that can draw people to City Centre, including special events on the concourse, the Healthy Living project that’s now underway for a 2023 completion, more merchants and, ideally for Chiarmonte, another department store to replace Penney’s.

The Association has dwindled to about two or three active members, including Chiarmonte and Jackson’s business partner Loretta DelPriore.

“We keep a handle on things,” Chiarmonte said. “I’ve been here 38 years, and I’ve had success. I think any business, any business that comes into the facility is going to help … and is going to create traffic. So the more foot traffic, there is more business. It just kind of goes to (common sense). I think (Penney’s) was a huge help for me because of the location, and I guess COVID put the nail in their coffin, unfortunately. That was a good store.”

The new owner, a developer in California, has a Rochester realtor who in the past has said he was working to show and sell the property. Potential concepts have included an event center and boutique-style hotel. Chiarmonte is on board with a mixed-use place, as long as those parcels are filled, he said.

He and Jackson agree with the city’s plan to pursue new designs for the four entryways to the Centre. That plan is in the design phase, city officials said. Other work is to include painting the floor and walls, and the tiles  — initially to be cleaned up and improved — are being taken down to expose the natural underpinnings of steel and wires. Some downtown apartments have been constructed in a similar industrial style.

Jackson wants the floor to be addressed soon, as he thinks the mismatched tile colors don’t do anything positive for the concourse appearance.

“To kind of bring this back to life,” he said. “This is a lot of open property right in the center of town.”

It may seem daunting to not only buy property there but also tack on property taxes and business improvement district and mall user fees to the total. However, they both said it was still less expensive than other city property.

“I don't know about rent, but I would guess that rent is reasonable because the cost of property is pretty reasonable, so if somebody's looking to start a business or open a business, this would be great, because you're in the middle of downtown and it's an expensive place to attain property,” Chiarmonte said.

To those people that have spouted off about tearing down the mall, it’s just not that easy, he said. He said the city would have to buy out each individual property owner and pay fair market value.

And to those that say the mall is dead?

“I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” Chiarmonte said. “But I would say it’s sleeping.”

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For prior coverage about City Centre’s ongoing transition, see article "Moving forward?" and "Making the best ..."

Top photo: Craig Jackson, co-owner of Batavia Stagecoach Florist at 26 Batavia City Centre; the mall concourse ceiling, both currently and as it begins to shed its tiles; Bob Chiarmonte of Classic Optical at 44 Batavia City Centre, and a section of concourse. Photos by Joanne Beck.

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