Richland County administrator Gerald Seals confirmed Tuesday that the county is finalizing the purchase of three anchor stores at Columbia Place Mall – the former Sears and Dillard’s locations, as well as the soon to-be-vacant Burlington Coat Factory.
However, Seals would not comment on whether the county is planning to purchase the entire mall, which could mean the nearly 60 tenants at the Dentsville shopping center would have to move.
County officials announced in December that they planned to buy property at Columbia Place as part of their Renaissance project. The plan is to move county administrative offices to the mall and for the current administration building on Hampton Street to be razed to make way for a county judicial center. The current judicial center on Main Street would be sold.
When asked if the county planned to purchase the rest of the mall, county spokeswoman Beverly Harris declined to say specifically. “As to the acquisition of any other entities, the County only engages in direct negotiations,” she said in a statement.
That leaves the merchants uncertain about their future.
Frank Asmar, who has owned and managed Oxford Street menswear in the mall for about a decade, said merchants have received no information on a potential sale or its ramifications from the county or from the leasing agents, Moonbeam Leasing & Management.
“We don’t know anything,” he said. “If they buy the anchors, it will bring more traffic. If they buy the mall, we might have to move. But everything is rumors.”
However, County Council member Dalhi Myers, a supporter of the plan, said the merchants would not be displaced.
“The goal of Richland Renaissance is to revitalize the entire county, not to displace businesses,” she said.
An employee at the mall office declined to answer questions. Calls to the Moonbeam corporate offices were not returned.
Some have criticized Project Renaissance for what they say has been a lack of transparency.
County administrators have said that the Richland Renaissance plan would cost the county $144.3 million. But some council members say the cost could be as high as a half billion.
The plan calls for:
▪ Purchasing property at Columbia Place Mall on Two Notch Road and relocating county administrative offices there from 2020 Hampton St.
▪ Razing the 2020 Hampton building and constructing a judicial center, plus a related office complex across the street on property not owned by the county.
▪ Selling the current courthouse property at 1717 Main St.
▪ Building a business incubator, called the Start Center, “in the Dutch Square area.”
▪ Building a Lower Richland Center to include a competitive aquatics center, a magistrate court, a library, a “critical care” medical facility and a sheriff’s station.
“Real angry people’
As for the mall, the anchor stores are owned by the individual corporate retailers. The mall and some out parcels, such as the former Columbia Place cinema, are owned separately.
The county did not disclose the purchase prices for the three anchors, which are all owned separately from each other and the rest of the mall. However, Harris said the purchase price would be released once the deal is done.
County records list the market value of the stores as:
▪ Sears – $2.9 million
▪ Dillard’s – $2.4 million
▪ Burlington –$750,000
▪ The mall itself – $3 million
But even some County Council members are in the dark as to plans for the mall itself.
“The discussion has been about the anchors,” said Paul Livingston, one of five of the 11 council members to vote against the project, in large part because of the secrecy surrounding it. “But we don’t know” if the sale of the entire mall is being negotiated.
“I support the concept” of purchasing the anchors, he said, noting that importing county workers and constituents would provide a windfall of customers for the merchants. “But there has been no public participation.”
Yvonne McBride, who represents the council district that includes the mall, declined comment, directing questions to Seals.
“It’s a contractual matter dealing with real estate,” she said. “I don’t want to mess anything up.”
For John-Arthur Miller, assistant manager at the Electronix store in the mall, the lack of public information about the project is disturbing. A full sale that forces the merchants to leave would be catastrophic for some, he said.
“They haven’t told anybody anything,” he said. “And there’s about to be some real angry small business owners.”