For about $35,000 in taxpayer money, St. Charles aldermen received a lesson in everything they already knew was wrong with Charlestowne Mall on Monday night. And next month, they know they'll likely hear more of the same from local residents when they are asked to provide their thoughts on the mall at a community brainstorming session.
But if nothing else, several aldermen said the results of a study they commissioned on the mall reinforced a creeping suspicion they've had for sometime now.
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"We may be trying to fix something there that for 20 years has been broken," Alderman Dan Stellato said. "I don't know if we can. I think what you've opened my eyes to is this may be a problem we may not be able to overcome. At some point (starting over) may be the answer."
The eye-opener was in a listing of the facts about the "dying mall," as consultant John Melaniphy deemed the structure. There are only 12 active stores remaining out of the 120 retail spaces the mall contained at one point. And there has been an ongoing decline in general merchandise sales from the large department stores at the mall since 2006. Compounding the problem is that the available store space in the mall is too small by modern standards to attract big name tenants, such as a Macy's or Bloomingdale's. And while the income and demographics of the nearby area seem to indicate the mall could be saved if there was a way to attract new stores, aldermen said they weren't convinced such a task is worth the effort.
Melaniphy suggested radical change, such as demolishing and expanding the old Sears wing of the mall, could draw in a large tenant. And a strip of restaurants, and some dense housing behind the mall, could attract a shopping base. But Melaniphy also said pulling in a big store would likely come with a request for the city to kick in some financial help. And that's where aldermen said they would have a hard time spending taxpayer dollars, or kicking back sales tax revenue, for a solution that may not even save the overall mall. Bringing in a big attraction would still leave more than 100 retail spaces to fill in the mall.
"I'm kind of leaning toward looking at this as a blank sheet of paper and what can be done with it from there," Alderman William Turner said. "Forget that the mall is even there."
Getting to that blank sheet of paper could also be a challenge. The mall is owned by a California-based investment group that has had almost no contact with the city. City officials said they don't believe there's any way the group could be making much, if any, profit on the mall. But the mall is still not for sale. City staffers are hopeful the owners would sell for the right price to get out from under a poor investment.
The use of eminent domain to take over and demolish a blight has not been publicly discussed by city officials. However, Mayor Don DeWitte would not rule out the possibility when directly asked if eminent domain was an option back in April.