Thirty-three years ago I sarcastically (but accurately) dubbed it the "Wasteland Mall," and little has changed since. But a new owner is confident a new name, new look and new tenants will bring new vitality to a property that has seldom lived up to its potential.
"Am I nervous? Yeah. But go big or go home," said local entrepreneur Todd Smith, who with wife Kristen this week paid about $1.3 million for the Westland Mall on West Jefferson Boulevard near Time Corners and plans to spend another $500,000 or so on a much-needed facelift for what will henceforth be known as "Jefferson Crossing." Former owner George Smith (no relation) also owned mall tenant Fort Wayne Tile, and although his death in November meant the end of the tile company, it provided the latest opportunity and challenge for a man who clearly relishes both.
Smith was just 17 when he went to work as a dishwasher and cook at Brubaker's Bar and Grill in the Marketplace of Canterbury and met property owner Stan Liddell, who had just opened Piere's Nightclub. Smith went to work for Lidell in 1990 as a dishwasher and maintenance man and worked his way up to Piere's CEO. After Liddell's death in 2013, Smith ventured out on his own and today his business interests included Early Bird's Ultra Lounge, YOLO (You Only Live Once) Event Center, Main Street Bistro and Mitchell's Sports and Neighborhood Grill, which was destroyed by a fire in 2013 that ultimately led Smith to Westland Mall.
The original Mitchell's opened in the Marketplace of Canterbury in 2011, but after the fire Smith needed a new location and finally found one in Westland Mall earlier this year, opening in a space formerly occupied by a series of unsuccessful bars and restaurants. Mitchell's success convinced Smith the rest of the mall could thrive, too, under the right leadership.
Smith said he's already landed a company that will sell archery equipment and a place to use it, and has letters of intent from an art gallery and motorcycle dealer. Once all three are signed, just one-third of the 60,000-square-foot mall's space will be available. "I'm not afraid of competition. I wouldn't mind another restaurant," said Smith, who isn't looking to fill space with traditional retailers because their sales — and hence their reliability as tenants — can be undercut by the internet.
"I planned to spend $300,000 on Mitchell's and I'm up to $700,000. I spent $15,000 to clean out the ditch (the huge swale in front of the mall,) it will cost me $50,000 to prepare the space for Pure Archery and I'm going to have to change the sign. But you've got to spend money to make money," Smith said. "I'm all in."
He's not the first to predict a Westland Mall renaissance, though. When I wrote in 1984 about how "you can't call it 'wasteland mall' anymore," Robert Ackerman of Florida had just bought the place and was predicting great things despite its 85 percent vacancy rate in part because of the General Motors' truck plant in southwest Allen County was about to open.
Phil Luginbill, whose barber shop opened in the mall in 1976, told me at the time he was optimistic about the future — and said much the same when we talked this week.
"Business is decent, but it could be better," said Luginbill, whose reliance on walk-in customers should get a boost by anything that would bring more people into the mall.
Many have the chronic problems of a mall located on a busy corridor in a relatively affluent part of town on its lack of direct access to West Jefferson, but with 2,000 people a week somehow finding their way to Mitchell's, Smith isn't buying it. He figures the owners of the glitzy new Umi seafood and sushi restaurant in the mall's parking lot wouldn't have spent millions of dollars on the venture if they had concerns about location.
Some of Smith's ventures have been more successful than others – like the Jan. 4 opening of Umi – but his track record in Fort Wayne, his passion and his willingness to embrace projects others might avoid offer reason to believe he can succeed where others have failed. That's happened before, too, such as when Jack Kellams of Oolitic, Ind., bought the struggling Southgate shopping center in 1985 — less than two years after International Harvester closed its huge nearby truck plant — and managed to revitalize the city's first large suburban shopping center.
That's the sort of positive history Smith is determined to repeat.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at email@example.com or call him at 461-8355.