NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — The clock is ticking for the remaining businesses at Military Circle Mall in Norfolk to set up shop somewhere else.
However, they will get a little more time.
Tuesday night, City Manager Chip Filer said City Council gave its blessing to allow the shopping mall to stay open until January 31, 2023. That is a month later than it is currently scheduled to close.
The move comes after some of the remaining tenants pleaded for more time in the aging structure before it makes way for redevelopment. They are still hoping the city can come through with other assistance as well.
Tenants say they’re frustrated with the timing of the announcement and hope for better communication from the city moving forward.
“I think many of us thought we had until December of 2023, so now it’s really kind of advocating for what we have done in this space with the resources that we do have and we are hoping for a hand up not a handout,” said REACH Executive Director, Dr. Jennifer Goff.
REACH is a non-profit helping to improve access to books and improve literacy in Hampton Roads. The Big Free Book Store opened in Military Circle Mall in November of 2020.
“It was a dream come true almost to be able to give away free books to kids and to see it being demolished broke our hearts,” said Leslie Clarridge, who also works for REACH.
Goff and Clarridge say it was meant to be a temporary pop-up book store, but they quickly realized the need during the pandemic.
They have a lot of inventory to move, and a big space. Goff says as they relocate, they’re hoping for support from the city.
“We’re in an environment at this moment where it’s very expensive to just exist so we are hoping for ways to counteract what the environment is out there,” said Goff. “Many of us are seeking support when it comes to relocation, we are looking for spaces that we can operate that we can afford that we don’t have to take steps back in our service to the community.”
Trophy’s Furniture and Mattresses owner Steven “Trophy” Johnson says he’ll be able to find another place to go, but moving 20,000 square feet of inventory will be tough.
“Now I have to get rid of inventory at liquidation prices,” said Johnson.
In addition to the store, Johnson runs a non-profit where he helps families get discounted mattresses if they need them. He says there are several businesses inside the mall that work to take care of the community they serve.
“We have to change the narrative out here,” said Johnson. “We have to care more about the businesses that are caring for the people. We can’t just be about the dollar. We have to be about rising as one.”
Sean Washington, the newly appointed acting director of Norfolk’s Economic Development Department, said the city has met with tenants several times and are listening to all the concerns.
However during Tuesday’s City Council workshop Washington, along with Tami Simonds with Divaris Property Management, detailed their own concerns with keeping the mall open.
The city’s Economic Development Authority (EDA) first purchased the majority of the mall’s property for $13.4 million in 2020. Washington said at that time, the 40-year-old mall was operating at a yearly $400,000 deficit, but the city broke even as they no longer had to pay real estate taxes.
But then in February 2021 on of the malls last remaining anchors — Cinemark — abruptly left. Washington said this was a loss of $60,000 a month in revenue.
“We are now at the point where the EDA is actually paying out money out of our general fund to support the operations at the mall,” Washington said.
He said if the mall would stay open through the end of the 2023 fiscal year, it would be operating in an estimated deficit of $1.2 million. That’s without addressing roughly $5.5 million in repairs to the roof.
“The mall has been seriously neglected over the last years,” Simond added.
Demolition is currently estimated to cost $1.7 million and the city is currently negotiating with a development team lead by Hampton Roads native Pharrell Williams, to turn the sprawling space into a new entertainment district.
Simonds said currently they have 91 short-term tenants and four long-term tenants left. She said many are behind on rent and in total there is $221,000 needed in back rent.
Knowing many of the businesses left are locally owned is one of the reasons Washington recommended extending the mall’s closing date.
However he is also suggesting the city look into the early release of a tenants security deposit, partial rent abatement and relocation assistance.
Dorsett Barnwell is a former professional boxer. Barnwell mentors young kids and teaches boxing lessons to kids in the community.
He says he’s still trying to figure out where to take his business next.
“I hear that at least 20 times a day. ‘Okay, what’s the next move? What’s the next move as it pertains to these kids?” said Barnwell. “If we come up with a plan ourselves, are y’all going to support the people that’s been supporting y’all?”
Number 1 Space owner Michael LaMelle says the businesses in the mall have a lot to offer people. From recording space, to discounted mattresses, to boxing lessons, to books that can take kids to places near and far. He hopes the city realizes the value in what’s currently being housed at Military Circle Mall.
“Just being aware that these small businesses exist, pouring into them, giving them a voice, giving us acknowledgment, some compassion,” said LeMelle. “Meet us where we are and let’s move together.”