I was taking one last look across the 100-acre moonscape of the former Woodville Mall, not quite obeying no-trespassing signs, when a blue pickup pulled up beside my car. It sported a city of Northwood logo.
I jumped out and walked over. Behind the wheel sat a husky man with a buzz cut and a level gaze. “You want to buy it?” he asked.
That’s the gallows humor out here about a once-great shopping mecca whose final private owner was Mike Kohan. If you don’t laugh, you’d cry.
Yes, the name Kohan is known well beyond Berkshire County, where a limited liability corporation the Long Island man controls has owned the Berkshire Mall since 2016.
Kohan’s name is uttered, not warmly, in dozens of places like Northwood beat up by economic decline and seismic shifts in retailing.
As a kind of commercial rigor mortis sets in at the 30-year-old Berkshire Mall, I’m on a weeklong reporting road trip through the Midwest, visiting the tattered portfolio of properties owned or associated with the Kohan Retail Investment Group.
My hope is to get a sense of how Kohan runs this empire. What kind of owner is he? How good is he at the game of turning distressed malls around?
And I’m asking about what happens later in places like Northwood, where a foreclosure eventually put the former Kohan mall in taxpayers’ hands. Can I learn things that will help people in Berkshire County prepare for the Lanesborough mall’s next chapter?
I’ll be posting dispatches along the way and welcome your thoughts and suggestions. (Email me at email@example.com.)
• • •
The man in the truck is Craig Meier, Northwood’s public service director. He had driven over from city offices a few miles away to see if the man on the big red tractor needed more fuel across the empty tract -- from this distance you can’t hear his rig, and just barely see it. Keeping the grass and weeds down, and avoiding mishaps with jagged pavement and debris like rusted rebar, is a full-time job come summer.
“Knock on wood, we haven’t ruined a tire,” Meier says.
Right about where that guy is mowing, a Sears once stood. The company, showing itself to be a good corporate citizen, paid to knock its building down and later sold about 14 acres to Northwood. The city hopes to use all of the land here to write a new story for this place. I’ll describe that quest in my next post.
First, let’s pay respects to the 42 years of retailing that went on here, the last two of those under Kohan’s hand.
Meier is a public works guy, but he’s also a kind of superintendent of civic memory when it comes to the mall, a job he shares with many in Northwood. After he graduated from his school, Meier went to work as a porter for Home City Furniture in the mall, breaking down boxes and polishing inventory.
“When they first closed it down, there were a lot of people sad to see it go,” Meier tells me. “There was a lot of employment here.”
He points off to his right, where a bank stood. And to another former bank, now the Poolside Shop.
“This area just died,” he says. “I’d like to see something in here other than an abandoned field.”
Sears was the only remaining retailer here when a Wood County Common Pleas Court judge ordered Kohan’s mall to close in December 2011. She acted to protect the public.
Holes in the roof of the 778,000-square-foot beast were baptizing indoor spaces; some parts of the roof had fallen in. The fire chief determined the sprinkler system wasn’t working.
One of the most successful ventures here, for a long time, was a general store known as The Andersons, which had taken the big anchor space J.C. Penney vacated in 1987. The Andersons people paid to make their own building improvements, after failing to get the mall owner to act, according to a story in the Toledo Blade. It’s believed they withheld rent.
But even after kicking in money for repairs, an executive with The Andersons announced the store would close in late 2012, eliminating 29 full-time and 92 part-time jobs. That left just Sears. Then it too fell.
• • •
Since he retired, Dan Mikolajczyk has been walking his neighborhood more.
After the final structures came down at the Woodville Mall about a year ago, his loop along East Plaza Boulevard -- a fancy name for a modest street -- now offers unobstructed views south across the expanse.
From the right angle, you wouldn’t even know that tons of pavement from parking lots is still there, one of the old owner’s gifts to the city.
Wearing an optical yellow T-shirt, Mikolajczyk passes three homes, side by side, owned by Parkcliffe Memory Care Co. They house people with dementia. The two-story buildings face the little boulevard. Its narrow median is dotted with pear trees. The long-delayed mall demolition, which cost the city more than $2 million -- most of that for asbestos abatement -- did its own number on memory.
Off in the distance, you can see mounds of pulverized concrete, remnants of the mall’s foundation. They rise, little pyramids with their own history. Up close, the ground-up concrete, sorted by the size of the chunks, contains bits of metal and other debris fetched up by the wrecking crews.
Even after coughing up all that money for the demolition, paid for through a state loan, Northwood officials decided to buy these piles of pebbles. They’re being practical, Ohio-style, hoping to use tons of rubble from the old mall as building materials for what comes next.
I caught up with Mikolajczyk at a corner near the old mall’s retention pond. He pulled out his earbuds and talked about the long, slow ruin he witnessed.
In addition to leaving his job as supervisor of streets in Toledo, Mikolajczyk just ended service on the Northwood City Council. He was still in office for all three public meetings about the future of the site, the last one in April.
Finding the right next step for the mall, he says, became the focus of his public service. His campaign materials often included photos of the derelict space.
People here on the north side of the mall argued that bits of the building were blowing toward their properties in the west wind. They worried about asbestos. And, of course, consider the look of the thing.
“People complained because it’s an eyesore,” he says.
And it wasn’t just residents. As a city official, Mikolajczyk was privy to problems the mall’s tenants faced. Representatives of the owner — Kohan as of 2009 — assured officials they were on the job.
But Mikolajczyk recalls a jeweler in the mall who got fed up. “They fixed their own part of the roof because it was going bad.” Floors were wet. “It was nasty,” Mikolajczyk says.
People going to the movie theater knew to check seats before sitting down. Some were wet.
Relations with Kohan’s people soured, if there are degrees of sourness. Mikolajczyk says promises and assurances the company gave city officials just seemed to stop.
“Finally, the company stopped paying anything and everything,” he says.
When the end really came, the city hoped for a swift demolition. It took years before the first enclosed mall in the region, as Mikolajczyk notes with evident pride, became “the last one to go down.”
After the mall closed, the city did what it could to keep people out. It didn’t work, even with mounds of earth heaped up at entrances. People tunneled through to get anything of value, including copper piping.
• • •
Back across the tract, a metal-clad strip plaza on Woodville Road sits in front of the old mall. The owner, who I found out mowing narrow wedges of grass around his property, attended the foreclosure proceeding that put the mall in the city’s hands. The city was the only bidder, getting the site for $200,000.
“It was an eyesore,” the guy tells me. He was at the proceeding to bid on a house -- making him an accidental witness to a piece of mall history. The mall property sold to the city for a tenth of what it cost a few years later to level it.
“He probably lost on this one,” he says of Kohan.
Robert Roach wasn’t alive when they built the mall, but helped keep it going, in his small way, in its final days. His buddies lived on different sides of the place, surrounding it like a teen invasion force. The mall was the beachhead.
“We would meet up there after school. We always went there,” says Roach, now 27. He liked the $5 movie tickets. While they lasted. And he remembers the wet seats.
I ran into Roach at the city offices. He stood in the lobby holding a receipt and -- this doesn’t happen much for reporters -- asked me the first question.
Why had a guy from Massachusetts come 615 miles to Ohio (the math is mine) to investigate the Woodville Mall. I tried to explain.
Roach’s connection to the mall goes deep enough that he made a special trip back to see part of the complex come down.
Like everyone in Northwood, the mall is a presence even in its absence, a missing tooth. “I just saw that they knocked down the old Sears part,” he tells me.
Another milestone moment, the mall’s final day of sales, lured Matt Bastubee back. He told me the story at the Big Apple Deli. It was suddenly pouring outside. To the west, near the East Toledo line, smoke churned from stacks of a refinery.
Bastubee, a builder, has a lot to say about economic declines -- how people who used to like to run little boats out the Maumee River onto Lake Erie can’t afford that any more.
“We haven’t found how to replace what has left,” he says. “That’s just the way it is. The money’s not there. This area is getting more and more depressed.”
On the mall’s last day, Bastubee went over there with his daughter; his parents live nearby. “There was hardly anybody there anymore because it was so run down. The central part of the mall was going to hell.”
Some tenants were using space heaters, he recalls.
“It’s all gone now. All that is gone. It’s a blight now,” Bastubee says. “It’s so ugly to see. Hell, turn it back into farm fields.”
• • •
I decide to drive the length of Woodville Road, also known as state route 51. It is the main business drag in Northwood.
On the map, Northwood resembles a diving board, a neat, long rectangle, about six miles wide and one mile high, carved out when the city incorporated from township land in 1962.
Woodville Road is a spoke radiating southeast out of Toledo. Along the way, the route testifies to troubles of a region that got wealthy through the auto business, then lost that lifeline. A new Jeep plant is a godsend. But tons of businesses here had bolted themselves to the car business, with Detroit an hour north. The trend line only went down.
Bob Anderson, the city administrator, says the road, and perhaps the old mall site in particular, is the “soul” of the small city’s commercial life.
The soul is ragged not only at the current mall moonscape but at the western end, where just before travelers cross into the community of Eugene they pass the Great Eastern, a strip mall. It looms as another retail relic, a bookend to the bad news down the way at Kohan’s former mall.
“For lease” signs are everywhere, even at the LoanMax outlet that sits in a newer building in front of Great Eastern. “Cash loans on car titles,” the sign out front says. A Liberty Tax outlet in a former gas station is also for lease. So is the property across the street. And so on.
Thankfully, apart from its commercial soul, Northwood has a business heart. A cluster of businesses in the southwest corner of the city are significant regional employers. Though only 5,200 people live in Northwood, 15,000 people are present weekdays, Anderson says. The city’s 1.5-percent income tax generates revenue for the community, thanks to that migrant workforce. Seventy percent of taxes generated by local jobs goes to schools. When the mall stopped paying taxes, schools felt it.
Dealings with Kohan’s company left scars for officials in the city building. Anderson remembers promises offered by Kohan representatives, when they turned up at civic meetings. The community wanted a robust campaign to save the mall. They wanted that even if that expectation wasn’t reasonable, given hard times for the Toledo area and all of retailing, especially the dinosaur of an enclosed mall.
“They strung us along for a year -- and we’d believe. They always strung us along,” Anderson recalls.
Until the promises stopped. Just before the mall foreclosure proceeding, the owner filed for bankruptcy protection. Such filings typically stop the clock, “staying” action to preserve a troubled asset until a bankruptcy judge can size things up. Anderson and the city attorney went to court only to find that the lawyers hired by the mall had abruptly withdrawn.
Anderson’s theory: Like just about everybody else, they didn’t get paid.
“They left owing a lot of money to the utility company,” he says of the mall owner.
After years of dealing with Kohan, Anderson has a credential, a kind of master’s degree in how not to run a civic-minded business. Today, he’s got their number.
“They don’t care about us,” he says across a conference table covered with maps of what Northwood officials hope will be the next chapter of the Woodville Mall story.
“They don’t care about you,” Anderson adds, referring to the Berkshire Mall and people in Massachusetts. “They care about money. This is just business to them. They have been able to walk away -- and that’s kind of what happened here in Northwood.”
“We’re faced with, ‘What the heck do you do with this?’” he asks.
Next: What the heck Northwood is trying to do with the former Woodville Mall.