More than 30 people attend meeting to discuss possible purchase of St. Lawrence Centre mall

With a tour of the St. Lawrence Centre mall under their belts, members of a local group that’s looking into the possibility of purchasing the facility will be meeting next week to decide their next step.

More than 30 people, including Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, were on hand Wednesday night to tour the mall and see what infrastructure needs would have to be addressed if they decided to purchase the building.

“It went very well. It was actually very exciting to see the turnout from the community,” said Sylvie Marion, mall assistant property manager. “We had young family members here, we had Assemblywoman Addie Russell, Joe Gray (Massena town supervisor) and businesses. It was just a wide variety representing our community. There was a lot of enthusiasm. The people that were here came with great ideas.”

The walk-through was organized by RIOT (Re-Imagining Our Tomorrow), a group formed last year following Alcoa’s announcement that it planned to close its Massena operation. That group has been looking at ways to help revitalize the north country economy.

Mrs. Russell shared several ideas with the group’s organizers that she suggested could make the project more economically viable and attract additional funding for the effort.

Taking care of infrastructure needs will be one of the issues facing the group if they move forward with the purchase, said Karen St. Hilaire, the group’s coordinator.

“I have talked to one of the original contractors. One of the big problems is going to be parking,” she said.

She said that, because metal rather than plastic was used for pipes, the parking lot has deteriorated over the past 25 years, with drains not working properly and the possibility of a sinkhole.

They’ll also need to address the mall’s roof, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

“We also know we’re going to need a new roof. The question becomes, do we replace the existing roof or put on a greenhouse kind of roof,” she said.

Among the other infrastructure issues are a water main issue in the Sears end of the building and the need for a new compressor in the St. Lawrence Centre arena.

“The compressor in the arena needs to be replaced. They decided not to replace it,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Those are issues that will be brought up when the group meets again.

“What we have to weigh is, is there enough income coming in to cover that and is the price that we offer and that they hopefully accept low enough that we can make this thing work. I’m going to be meeting with the group next week and we’re going to talk about all of those issues,” she said.

They also need to discuss other issues like the possibility of taking out a mortgage for a portion of the purchase. With the mall at 45 percent occupancy, Ms. St. Hilaire said mall officials have about $1 million a year coming in through income rental, and that’s a factor they need to consider when making their decision.

“They’re not losing money, but they’re not making a lot of money. We have to do better than just break even. All of these issues have to be looked at,” she said.

What funding would be available to the group depends on what type of structure they form. Mrs. Russell said some funds might be available if they’re eligible for them.

“She had a lot of good input about a possible capital fund that might be available or other types of grants that we might look at. It’s going to depend on the structure we create. A not-for-profit has a higher percentage of grants you can apply for. I think we’re looking at a corporate structure. She and I talked about that afterwards,” Ms. St. Hilaire said.

If they move forward, what organizers envision is a mall with local stores that could be recruited that make products like soap, wine, candies, candles, baskets, cider and furniture on site. Visitors could make a day of watching the industry of these businesses as well as purchase the products made. Businesses already operating throughout the county could open a smaller storefront, offering their goods and services to captive traffic, referring them to the home store for a larger purchase.

Activities such as dance, live theater, home shows, concerts, fairs, circuses and athletic competitions could also be hosted every weekend and throughout the summer, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

In addition, she said, the former Sears store site could house a Northern New York Regional Outlet, where shoppers could buy anything made in the north country ranging from maple syrup, Amish furniture, Mohawk baskets, Adirondack chairs and canoes to Cabot cheese, Croghan bologna and Glazier hot dogs, jewelry and clothing.

Mrs. Russell told the group that she sponsors a one-day North Country Department Store following that same concept each year at Indian River Central School in Philadelphia that attracts approximately 90 vendors.

The other large space at the end of the mall, which formerly housed the Ames and Hills department stores, could be re-purposed for an indoor greenhouse to produce fresh vegetables for use by restaurants in the mall and for sale locally or to export throughout the region, Ms. St. Hilaire said.

Other entities are also looking at buying the 135-acre facility, and a second local investor is reportedly interested in purchasing the mall’s arena.

“We can’t wait too long. I understand there are a couple of groups from out of the area interested in buying it,” Ms. St. Hilaire said. “My thought about that is, if we can do this as a community venture, that would be great. If we cannot put it together and someone else buys it, I still want the enthusiasm to make it happen. I want to see something happen in the community that can create economic viability. Do we have to do it? Maybe not, but maybe we can do it better.”

By Bob Beckstead, Watertown Daily Times