What’s happening at Washington Mall?
Maybe nothing. Maybe something huge.
Few principals involved in ownership, management, leasing or development would comment or return phone calls to the Observer-Reporter about what may be ahead for the sprawling, decaying retail complex.
Those who did speak revealed little.
Two of the owners, brothers John and Stephen Richman, were extremely cordial. But John declined comment and Stephen did not want to talk for that group.
“I really don’t have any feeling that I would be authorized to express,” Stephen Richman said. “I am but one of the owners. To my knowledge, there has not been a consensus reached by all of the owners.”
Debbie Schumacher, manager of the mall, likewise was polite but said she could not comment, referring the O-R to “the leasing people.” That would be Oxford Development Co. of Pittsburgh. Art DiDonato, an agent who represents the local mall’s leasing activities, did not respond to several phone messages.
So … all of this may mean nothing is brewing at the once-pristine mall; something just started percolating; or the pistons of change are clicking rapidly but silently en route to launching a major project.
The situation has assumed a clandestine air, fueling the perception plans are being formulated for the South Strabane Township site – retail or otherwise. And why not?
Washington Mall sits on a tract that may be among the most valuable in Washington County, at the nexus of Interstate 70 and Route 19, and a Starling Marte throw from I-79.
Lots and lots of traffic smack in the middle of a county that is brimming with ideas and initiatives, as well as population.
It is a vibrant area where retail is thriving and burgeoning.
Less than a mile from the county’s first mall, the Old Mill project is evolving next to Strabane Square, across from Trinity Point, and a few miles from Tanger Outlets, Washington Crown Center and the chic Shoppes at Quail Acres.
The Old Mill is eagerly anticipated and the rest are coexisting successfully within close proximity. Crown Center, in particular, appears to be ramping up.
And indications are the retail market here is not oversaturated, and other shopping interests could flourish as well.
That isn’t the case at Washington Mall, which struggled for more than a decade. It has a number of issues, including mold in the original structure, and management closed public access to the interior. Salvaging the building would be a challenge.
Stores shut down or relocated and a mere seven remain in the the mall proper: J.C. Penney, DFW Furniture, JoAnn Fabrics, Toys R Us, Staples, Imperial Cleaners and Grand China Buffet and Grill.
By Memorial Day, there will be five. Penney announced Jan. 15 it was shuttering 33 stores nationwide by early May, including the mall anchor – cutting 2,000 jobs overall, 100 locally. In late December, Designer Furniture Warehouse said it was liquidating merchandise at its eight regional stores, including the one at the mall, as a result of bankruptcy proceedings.
Actually, by mid-year, there may be four. The hottest retail rumor in the county is that JoAnn Fabrics is headed to Washington Crown Center.
There are some positive developments. Oil & Gas Safety Supply said recently it is expanding, and opening its second Washington-area store in the mall annex, where CiCi’s Pizza used to be. And the seven businesses already operating on outparcels there appear to be solid: Home Depot, a Pennsylvania Wine & Spirits border store, branches of Community Bank and Washington Financial, Firestone Tires, Long John Silvers/A&W restaurant and Waffle House. Some have had long-term leases.
Keeping these annex businesses, demolishing the mall and building anew is a viable scenario. But what? Another mall could work, providing bona fide anchors commit to it. A strip mall is possible, but plans for one died nearly 10 years ago. A health care facility? Maybe.
There was a time, of course, when Washington Mall was a scintillating testament to large-scale retail. And that time was lengthy – more than a quarter-century.
“Build it and they will come,” the cornfield from which it was born seemed to whisper in the late 1960s. And the shoppers did come. It opened in 1968, the initial mall in Washington County and one of the first in Western Pennsylvania, a 663,000-square-foot facility offering a little of everything to the millions who entered – clothing, appliances, furniture, food, sweets, movies.
That heyday, lamentably, is past. Washington Mall still has a pulse, but it diminished perceptively. The good times don’t roll as regularly.
Don’t be surprised if they roll routinely again at the nexus of 19 and 70. And don’t be surprised if it is something huge.