by George Waldon on Monday, Aug. 21, 2006 12:00 am
Some believe Central Mall spelled the demise of Phoenix Village Mall, but the two co-existed for three decades.
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Phoenix Village Mall in Fort Smith is remembered as the first true mall in Arkansas. The single-story project gained the distinction by opening, in 1970, a few weeks ahead of Indian Mall in Jonesboro.
A decade later, Phoenix Village grew from its original 350,000 SF to encompass 489,000 SF. The development would rank seventh on this week's list of the state's largest malls and shopping centers, except for one thing:
Phoenix Village is a dead mall.
The project is a nonfactor in the $10.2 billion in sales tallied annually at Arkansas malls and shopping centers.
Hundreds of empty parking slots outside accompany empty shop space measuring several hundred thousand square feet inside. The 35-acre development is a ghost of its former glory, a retailing graveyard with darkened storefronts and empty corridors.
In front of the one-time home of Furr's Cafeteria, water drips from the ceiling. Several plastic trash cans and buckets catch most of the drops. But some splatter into puddles on the mall floor, joining flakes of paint that have fallen from the leaking cracks.
There's no need to warn passersby to watch their step because foot traffic is all but nonexistent. Damage from a spring storm is blamed for causing the leaks.
Apparently repairmen didn't complete the job, and there's no sign there's any urgency to fix the problem.
It's this sort of grim picture that Little Rock officials don't want to see repeated at University Mall, which seems to be moving down a shared path of decline.
The two, once thriving retail destinations, have become candidates for redevelopment. But different circumstances have taken the two projects to where they are today.
The slide of University Mall is tied to a catfight between the landowners and Simon Property Group of Indianapolis. Simon reluctantly has made improvements to the mall but has failed to replace anchor tenants and improve occupancy.
In Fort Smith, Phoenix Village became a retail casualty through a series of ownership changes. A new owner could enter the picture before year's end, but given the project's track record, it wouldn't be surprising if the mall continued to languish.
"There are a couple of interested parties, and one of them is doing due diligence," said Ron Polowy of Trigild Inc., the San Diego firm hired as property manager of the mall last year.
He indicated one of two would-be buyers is from Arkansas. Any indications on what the groups have in mind for Phoenix Village?
"No, they're really kind of secretive," Polowy said.
The current owner is Imperial Capital Bank of Glendale, Calif., which took possession of the mall at a near $4.2 million foreclosure sale on Nov. 1. The bank recovered the property from the local developers of Phoenix Village Mall, Jewel Morris and Howard Gentry.
Their limited partnership filed for Chapter 11 reorganization two years ago in hopes of buying time to round up a buyer for the mall.
"We got right up to the last minute, and one guy couldn't get a firm commitment from Target, and the other guy just couldn't come up with the money," Morris said.
Randy Twist, a Dallas developer, had made a $7.7 million offer to acquire Phoenix Village but couldn't get his financing in order. The mall secured a 1998 mortgage of $5.3 million held by Imperial Capital.
A year ago, Phoenix Village had 30 tenants with an occupancy rate above 50 percent. These days, two surgery centers and a bank branch play the role of anchor tenants. Western Arkansas Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery Center, River Valley Orthopedic Center and Fort Smith's First National Bank operate from locations along the front of the mall.
The remaining tenants are dominated by nonprofits that include Christ for the World International, The Healing Place and Jesus & Me. Rounding out the roster of interior tenants is the Hair Style Shop.
"I was sad to see Phoenix Village Mall deteriorate like it has," said Janie Glover, executive vice president of the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce. "There are a lot of people who live in the south part of town, and it's only a quarter-mile from Oklahoma, which was convenient for shoppers there."
Some believe the project at 4600 Towson Ave. was destined to fall by the wayside after the 864,000-SF Central Mall opened in 1972. The 54-acre development — the state's largest shopping center — at 5111 Rogers Ave. is about three miles northeast of Phoenix Village as the crow flies.
The ensuing projects that followed Central Mall transformed Rogers Avenue into Fort Smith's prime corridor, supplanting Towson Avenue as the main drag.
However, Howard Gentry said the added competition isn't what ultimately led to Phoenix Mall's decline.
"Five years before we closed it down, we realized it was over," Gentry said. "It had just run its course."
"After a few stores closed, we decided we needed to sell, and we were getting too old to fool with it," Morris said. "Who's going to loan money on a 40-year-old property to two 80-year-old men? I was glad to get out from under it."
Morris and Gentry have had a long association with the property, which has seen earlier foreclosure suits and trips to bankruptcy court.
Morris said Phoenix Village Mall performed well and operated normally until 1987. That's when a deal was struck to sell the project to an out-of-state real estate investment concern.
"The week we were to close on the sale was when the stock market crash happened on Monday (Oct. 19). Then on Tuesday, the Philadelphia banker called and said they weren't going to make the loan to finance the sale."
The financial fallout from "Black and Blue" Monday made many a lender skittish and sent them scrambling to shore up a growing portfolio of bad loans. In that climate, Little Rock's First Federal Savings of Arkansas called in Phoenix Village's loan.
"We were current, but they had a clause in there that they could call the loan anytime they wanted, which was stupid on our part," Morris said. "We knew we could sell it if we had time, so we filed for Chapter 11 to hold them off."
The first bankruptcy filing held off a foreclosure until a deal was struck with Pharis & Associates of Indianapolis. The deal allowed Pharis to assume the original loan for a time, with Morris and Gentry receiving payments for several years.
However, Pharis went bust, and First Federal foreclosed on the property.
"That's when it went empty," Morris said. "Pharis encouraged stores to go because he was going to tear down the mall and redevelop the property, but he never did."
Occupancy fell below 50 percent in the early 1990s when Morris and Gentry moved to re-enter the ownership.
They tried to buy the mortgage back from the thrift but were unable to work out a deal. The partners wound up buying it back from a developer in Dallas, who had bought the mortgage as part of a large package of real estate loans.
"It was a good opportunity," Morris said, declining to say what the purchase price was. "We got it back to 92 percent occupied. In hindsight, that's when we should have sold."
Morris was attracted to the northwest corner of Towson and Phoenix avenues in the late 1950s. He was looking for a location to consolidate his two Morris Furniture For Less stores and his Fort Smith Wholesale Furniture Co. operations.
At the time, the property was home to Maness General Store, a large mercantile operation that was closed, and a neighboring feed mill.
"I drove out there one rainy afternoon and Mr. Maness was sitting on the porch, and I talked with him about buying the property," Morris said. "When people found out we were moving to the property they asked, 'What in the world do you want to go way out there for?'
"It seemed like a long way from downtown Fort Smith back then, but that's changed over time."
He and his partners developed a 100,000-SF retail center on the 8-acre site in 1961. Flush with the success of their project, anchored by a Piggly Wiggly grocery and TG&Y store, they decided to step out and assemble 35 adjoining acres to expand.
The original idea was to add more freestanding strips of U-shaped retail buildings in a village setting, hence the Phoenix Village name. But then, Morris and Gentry decided to make a big splash and develop the state's first mall.
"Back then, all you had to do was say you had a mall, and retailers came running to you," Morris said.
The land assembly process involved buying 35 houses, which were relocated to the nearby Oklahoma community of Pocola.
A 110,000-SF Woolco store opened as the first tenant of the mall in 1969 just ahead of the project's overall completion. Ten years later, it was replaced by a Venture department store.
"We were happy to get it back because we were able to lease it to May Department Stores" — then owner of the Venture chain — "for twice what Woolco was paying," Morris said.
Other one-time Phoenix Village anchors were Beall Ladymon, two local department stores (Hunt's and Greg's), Hancock Fabrics, Cowan's Jewelry and a two-screen movie theater.
Some believe it's doubtful the mall will ever regain its status as a full-blown retail center. But locals are hopeful Phoenix Village will regain a new lease on life as a mixed-use redevelopment.
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