Beleaguered Berkshire Mall doesn't paint a pretty picture

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LANESBOROUGH This is what a struggling shopping mall looks like: Multiple empty storefronts, lots of vacant parking spaces, papered-up doorways, an exterior sign that's missing two letters, and a wrestling ring that occupies a space that once housed a national retailer.

The Berkshire Mall doesn't paint a pretty picture. And the beleaguered 720,000-square-foot shopping space, the county's largest retail shopping complex, received another in what seems like an endless series of blows Thursday when Sears announced that it would be closing its store at the mall in late January.

A closing sale is scheduled to begin Nov. 10 and end Jan. 28, according to a California advertising agency that has been authorized to handle a promotional campaign for the final sale. Sears Auto Center is scheduled to close next month.

The 29-year-old Berkshire Mall has lost four of its five anchor stores since October 2015, including the two original anchor tenants, Sears and J.C. Penney, which closed in July. The fifth anchor, Target, owns its own space in the mall.

And the mall has had three owners since 2014.

Sears Holdings Corp.'s decision Thursday to close 63 more stores in the U.S. comes three weeks after the chain received legal permission to liquidate its remaining 130 stores in Canada, a move that puts 12,000 employees in that country out of work.

The news that Sears plans to close its store in the mall stung longtime local store patrons Friday.

"I think it's horrible," said Debra Goddeau of Pittsfield, while shopping at Sears.

Goodeau thought Sears should relocate to the Allendale Shopping Center in Pittsfield, where the store was located before it moved to the Berkshire Mall when the complex opened in September 1988.

"People are going to miss Sears," she said. "It's like an icon."

"It's very sad," said Sonal Vyas of Williamstown. She worked at Sears right after moving to the Berkshires from Connecticut in 2006.

"I have personal feelings about this store, because it was my first job," she said. "I started here."

"Sears was a good store," said Nick Diorio of Pittsfield. "There was hardware, appliances, a little clothing, odds and ends. I'm going to miss it."

It could not be determined how many employees Sears has at its store in the mall, because the store manager could not be reached for comment Friday.

But employees who are impacted by the closure have been asked to register at the BerkshireWorks Career Center in Pittsfield to be eligible to receive services from the state's rapid response team, said Heather Boulger, executive director of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. On Monday, impacted employees can register at North Adams City Hall, Boulger said. Registration will take place at Berkshire Community College's South County campus in Great Barrington on Wednesday, she added.

The continued loss of tenants at the Berkshire Mall, which has also included Eastern Mountain Sports, Payless Shoe Source, Kay Jewelers and Hollister this year, has been compounded by the complex's assessed value, which is $19.5 million, according to Lanesborough town records.

The mall's assessed value is six times higher than the $3.5 million its current owner paid for the complex in September 2016. Berkshire Mall Realty Holding LLC, a subsidiary of Kohan Retail Investment Group of Great Neck, N.Y., is the company that bought the mall last year. Kohan, which specializes in purchasing and trying to revive distressed shopping malls, has had trouble meeting its property tax obligations to the town of Lanesborough, and almost lost the management of the complex this summer when it was late on a payment for more than $200,000.

The Baker Hill Road District, which has jurisdiction over the mall property, took legal action against Kohan this summer to retrieve the back tax revenue before Kohan paid it. In March, the road district asked the state to amend its bylaws so that it could own and maintain real estate, which would give the entity the ability to own the mall property.

On Friday, Lanesborough Town Manager Paul Sieloff said the road district is moving forward with those plans.

"It's in the Senate, and we're waiting," said attorney Mark Siegers, who represents the Baker Hill Road District.

Also this summer, Berkshire Mall Realty Holding LLC and Kohan Investment Group's owner, Mike Kohan, were sued in Berkshire Superior Court by UG2 LLC of Boston for allegedly breaching the terms of a contract to provide janitorial and housekeeping services that expires in August 2018, according to court documents. Kohan inherited the contract from the mall's former owner, COMM 2005-FL Berkshire Mall LLC, court papers state.

At the time the complaint was filed, UG2 LLC was seeking $143,096 in damages. The case is pending, and additional documents are expected to be filed with the court by Monday.

During a walk through the mall Friday, The Eagle counted 23 empty storefronts among the mall's more than 70 retail spaces. Some of the empty storefronts are filled with items from other stores, or promotional materials, while others contain a jumble of store furnishings like clothing racks.

Sieloff said the Baker Hill Road District is continuing to move forward with its plans "because the current owner doesn't seem to be putting in the effort" to make the shopping complex economically viable.

"What I mean is, I don't see the effort to try and recruit new stores and keep the stores that they have," he said. "This is a very important business in central Berkshire County that we cannot allow to deteriorate and cause more problems economically for the county."

Kohan told The Eagle on Thursday that's he not selling the mall. "We're going to push as hard as we can to fill those spaces," he said.

Contact Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski at 413 496-6224 or tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com.


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