Berkshire Mall sells for $1M after new player clears tax debt

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LANESBOROUGH — An Ohio investor is poised to write a new chapter in the Berkshire Mall's history.

A company identified as Durga Property Holdings Inc. came forward late last month to clear all unpaid taxes for the shuttered mall. And at 3:21 p.m. Thursday, a deed recorded the mall's sale to Durga for $1 million.

The principal of Durga Property Holdings has been identified as Vijaya Kumar Vemulapalli. That is the name that appears on a check written to pay off part of the back taxes owed by the mall's previous owner, Mehran Kohansieh, who also goes by the name Mike Kohan and controls the Kohan Retail Investment Group based on Long Island, N.Y.

Kohan bought the Berkshire Mall in 2016 for $3.5 million, then saw a continuing flight of stores large and small. The mall closed in late May.

Though Kohan fell behind on taxes last year, he eventually paid what he owed just before a final deadline.

That didn't happen this year, prompting the Baker Hill Road District, one of two public entities that levy taxes on the property, to begin steps to take ownership through the tax title process.

The district had been owed roughly $508,000, a number that continued to rise with interest charges. The town of Lanesborough itself had been owed more than $392,500.

But on June 24, Vemulapalli paid late taxes to both the town and district.

"Totally in full," Lanesborough Tax Collector Jodi Hollingsworth told The Eagle on Thursday. "Everything has cleared."

The town had not yet taken steps to pursue ownership of the mall, but would have in coming months, Hollingsworth said. "In fiscal 2020, I would have started the process," she said.

The transfer of the 355 Cheshire Road mall property Thursday is at least the second time that Vemulapalli and Kohan have done business.

Last year, Vemulapalli paid taxes owed on the Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Mich., one of the roughly two dozen malls owned by Kohan.

A call to the Ohio business phone number listed for Vemulapalli went unanswered Thursday.

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Vemulapalli was said to be visiting Berkshire County this week and was expected to meet Thursday with Mark W. Siegars, the attorney for the Baker Hill Road District.

Vemulapalli's company, which carries a Sanskrit word for "invincible," is located at 11320 Chester Road in Cincinnati, Ohio, according to the $5,490.60 business check he wrote to the town for six small parcels that make up parts of the mall property. For the largest parcel, he paid with a cashier's check, Hollingsworth said.

Waiting for word

Over at the mall Thursday, one former tenant sat waiting inside the entrance near Regal Cinemas, hoping to find and speak with Vemulapalli. The mall has been closed to the public since late May. The movie theater and Target remain open on properties they own.

Donald Messer, manager of the Cyberstation arcade, said he and other tenants had been notified by the mall's security team that the investor wished to speak with them.

He took the bus from his home in Pittsfield up to the place where he's worked for a decade, the last 18 months as manager, with a clear message for Vemulapalli.

"I want to make sure I catch him and let him know we want to stay," Messer said.

The arcade is owned by Bandai Namco Group of Japan. Messer said his regional manager has confirmed that the company would like to reopen the arcade, adjacent to the movie theaters and home to 36 electronic games.

"They want to stay. We want to see what's going on," said Messer, who is not being paid by his employer. He said he is applying for other jobs to make ends meet, hoping that the arcade can reopen.

Messer said that while the arcade faced periodic problems at the mall since it was purchased by Kohan in 2016, mainly through the occasional loss of power, things were OK. Malls owned by Kohan have occasionally lost power. In Lanesborough, Eversource cut off power several times in the past year; the company declined to say why, except to confirm that nothing was wrong with the power infrastructure.

"It's not a bad job working there," Messer said. "It just sucks when you have no power."

Outside on Thursday morning, Henry Biegel, a veteran mall-walker, joined a friend to trek the outer walls of the place, since barriers erected in the former food court prevent people from getting exercise inside.

Biegel said that whatever a new owner plans, he hopes that once cold weather returns, people will again be allowed inside.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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