J.C. Penney's announcement last month that it would close 33 underperforming stores, including its Phillipsburg Mall location raised an obvious question: "What is the future of the Phillipsburg Mall?"
In recent years, the mall has been hemorrhaging stores, including high-profile retailers such as American Eagle, FYE, Gap and PacSun. This past year alone, it lost Aeropostale, Christopher & Banks, Deb and Littman Jewelers.
According to retail analyst Jeff Green, president of Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix, the Lehigh Valley's blossoming retail marketplace has made it difficult for the New Jersey mall to attract both merchants and consumers.
"The competitive environment in Bethlehem, Allentown and Easton has increased significantly in the last 10 to 15 years," said Green, who cited additions such as the Promenade Shops at Saucon Valley, the Outlets at Sands Bethlehem and Lehigh Valley Mall's outdoor lifestyle center.
The 574,000-square-foot Phillipsburg Mall changed hands a year ago when Mason Asset Management of Great Neck, N.Y., bought it from Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust for $11.5 million. The owner already has tenants interested in the space J.C. Penney will vacate in May, Marc Snediker, the mall's general manager, has said. But he wouldn't tell me who those tenants are.
Snediker, who also declined to disclose the mall's vacancy rate, said in a story last month that Mason Asset bought the mall as a redevelopment property, which it plans to renovate and fill with tenants. He said the company is confident the mall will become a destination for shoppers.
Since Snediker was mum on the vacancy rate and wouldn't give me the total number of store spaces at the mall, I did my own estimation. During a Jan. 24 visit, I counted 29 shuttered storefronts and 46 open businesses, including J.C. Penney and anchors Bon-Ton, Kohl's and Sears but not counting kiosks. I figured the mall's vacancy rate to be around 40 percent, though it was hard to tell exactly how many slots were empty since they were boarded up or hidden by tarps.
My former colleague Tyrone Richardson reported in May 2012 that the mall has 90 spaces. If that were the case, the vacancy rate would fall to around 30 percent — still not good news for the mall.
"The ideal vacancy rate for a mall is up to 5 percent," Green said. "You'll always have tenant turnover, and that's what you want as you sometimes get better tenants."
Helene Meissner, former chairman of the Phillipsburg Area Chamber of Commerce, described the state of the mall as "sad."
"I think anyone who visits the mall is concerned," she said. "We certainly want to see businesses thriving there but we don't have any say — that's up to mall management."
Still, there's good news for the shopping center, which opened in 1989.
Lehigh Vapor, which sells an array of disposable and rechargeable electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) and accompanying accessories, opened Jan. 14.
Owner George Blandford was attracted to the space because he wants to expand his business' reach across the Lehigh Valley. He put his first location on the bottom floor of the Main Street Commons in Bethlehem in September and hopes to open a third location in Allentown.
"If nobody invests in the mall, it will go under," said Blandford, who reports his store has been profitable. "Businesses have to take a chance on it. I think it's going to turn around."
Also, California Girls, a fashion boutique for young women, is set to open this month, and Gold's Gym is scheduled to open within the mall later this year, Snediker said.
Coffee fiends can rejoice as Starbucks will be taking over the old Sonic building, Snediker announced at a Nov. 25 Pohatcong Township meeting.
The township's land use board at that meeting also unanimously approved a request to subdivide and sell off outlying parcels occupied by the former Sonic and other restaurants to fund interior and exterior renovations at the mall.
Green suggests the mall be turned into a mixed-use environment with venues such as a medical office, library extension or community college branch.
"It's a way to bring more people into the mall more often," he said.