New Castle News

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May 30, 2012

Towne Mall Memories, Part 3: Even new ownership couldn’t bring back retail pulse

NEW CASTLE — (Last of three parts)

Nationally and locally, the economy was taking some hits in the early and late 1980s.

Before the decade was three years old, both Johnson Bronze and Mesta Machine shut down their New Castle plants. Recession returned in the late 1980s, and in 1991, Shenango China closed for good. Two years later, the end came for Rockwell.

Throughout it all, the Towne Mall soldiered on, but time was running out.

“That probably played a role,” Jack Haims, owner of The Clothes Post (later The Ladies Store) said of the industrial closings. “Every little thing helps. But I can remember what was happening downtown, even before the mall. It was all the offices moving.

“Liberty Mutual was downtown at one time, and they moved to Wilmington Road. Bell Telephone switched to machines, and they don’t shop on their lunch hour. All those types of things would have an effect on it.”

Indeed, other former Towne Mall merchants agree, it may have been relocations rather than closings that spelled the end for the mall.

MOVING OUT

Prime among those departures was Sears, which left its anchor spot and reopened on Oct. 26, 1996, in Union Township. That followed the mid-1980s departure of Giant Eagle, which had a supermarket on the mall property. It now operates stores on Butler and Wilmington roads.

“That was the third-best Giant Eagle in the state of Pennsylvania,” recalled Mr. Pizza owner Rich Guadagno. “When it went out, and Sears and Murphy’s went out, those were anchor stores. Once the anchors go, it doesn’t bring in people any more.”

John Yergan, owner of the New Castle Hobby Center, agreed.

“When the big grocery store moved out, that was sort of the beginning of the end,” he said. “Then Sears pulled out, and that was a tremendous blow. Little by little, businesses started closing. We saw the decline over the years, reaching the point where we were actually supporting our business out of our pocket, and we couldn’t keep that up.

“We were there, probably, until we were down to about five stores, but July 31, 1997, was our last day.”

Vivian Sansone recalled that she and her husband, Tom, also stuck it out as long as possible in The Gift Gallery.

“We were there almost 30 years,” she said. “Once Sears and Murphy’s left, everything kind of went downhill. We were one of the last stores to close. He wanted to stick it out because he kept thinking it was going to come back.

“It was sad. He didn’t want to give it up, but finally, we just had to.”

 

FOR SALE

According to county records, mall ownership changed hands four times between 1987 and 1996, starting with a sale by original owner John Blackson of Arcon Development. Guadagno believes Blackson’s health was in decline at the time.

The mall was purchased from Blackson by Mark Scharfman, owner of a New York City-based real estate firm. However, it went on to be sold at sheriff’s sale just three years later, when it was picked up by Union National Bank of Pittsburgh. The bank, in turn, sold it to PES Inc., a group of Cleveland-based investors, on July 23, 1991.

Finally, New Castle developer Thomas George and partner Robert Bruce bought the mall at auction in Cleveland on Dec. 6, 1995. The sale was finalized two months later.

The new owners also changed the name of the mall to Cascade Galleria.

“Tom George saw the declining situation, and he really worked to give us a break, rent-wise,” Yergan said. “He really did his best to keep us there. It just came to the place where we couldn’t do it any longer.”

Indeed, just days before the auction, two longtime mall tenants — the Health Hut and the Sweet Shoppe, now owned by Felicia Caizza Francisco — announced they’d be pulling out and relocating in Union Township. Health Hut manager Don Hardesty told The News at the time that the mall “is not drawing enough traffic,” while Francisco noted that “the mall has been in upheaval. It’s lost its appeal.”

Mall merchants not only were on their fourth landlord in nine years, but also dealing with growing community sentiment that safety there was not what it should be.

Just before finalizing his purchase, George told The News that his first campaign would be to disprove that notion.

“The mall has gotten a bad rap,” he said. “It’s extremely exaggagerated.”

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