Fingerlakes Mall celebrated its 35th anniversary in April with a big party in the room where clothing retailer Steve & Barry's once stood.
The 36,000-square-foot space was lit up with swirls of nightclub lights. Funk band Starlight sweated out covers of Donna Summer and Kool & the Gang. Guests oscillated between a sparsely occupied dance floor, banquet tables and a cash bar.
And there wasn't a store in sight.
For the mall and its management, the party signified a shifting focus, one that prioritizes community as much as commerce.
The past seven years have seen Fingerlakes Mall, like many malls, shrink in the presence of the Great Recession and changing consumer habits. But as most of its surviving counterparts across America recover by luring new tenants and launching new experiences, Fingerlakes has continued to struggle. That's because, along with unfavorable market conditions and management turnover, the mall ultimately may have been tripped up by the same store credited with saving it: Bass Pro Shops.
Today, the mall faces one of its lowest occupancy rates since it opened in 1980 — and perhaps its lowest vote of confidence from the community.
To fill its many spaces, and to bring people back aboard its mission, Fingerlakes Mall has retooled its approach to attracting not only new businesses, but also new customers. By hosting concerts, conventions and birthday parties, as well as casting a wider net for new tenants, the mall hopes to reclaim the foot traffic that made it a destination in its heyday.
Whether it's within its power to do so, however, remains to be seen.
Fingerlakes Mall at 35: A timeline of significant events and memorable moments
From ownership transactions to the comings and goings of anchor stores, here is a timeline of significant events in the history of Fingerlakes Mall in Aurelius. Other images of moments in mall history from The Citizen's archives have been included in this slideshow, as well.
Sam Abram purchased Fingerlakes Mall at one of the highest points in its history.
It was late 2006. Hopes had ballooned for the Aurelius shopping center with the addition of Bass Pro Shops and more than $1 million in interior renovations roughly two years prior, including a remodeled food court.
With Bass Pro, the mall was expected to become as big an economic boon for the region as it was at its late-1980s peak — if not bigger. Management boasted an 81-percent occupancy rate, up from just under 50 percent in 1999.
A 15-year payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with Cayuga County, signed in 2003, projected the mall's value would leap from $4.6 to $25 million by 2019. Bass Pro's addition to the area "figured heavily" into the agreement, said Andrew Fish, executive director of the Cayuga County Chamber of Commerce and the Cayuga Economic Development Agency.
With the outdoors retailer expected to reel in 3 million new shoppers a year, development plans piled up. A shuttle bus service was planned to run between the mall and downtown Auburn. A neighboring area was targeted for a hotel, with Marriott and Hampton Inn among those that expressed interest. And development started on the Fingerlakes Crossing plaza, which would bring Kohl's, Dick's Sporting Goods, Buffalo Wild Wings and more across Clark Street.
In a statement at the time of his purchase, Abram — CEO of Siba Corporation, a business with interests in jewelry and property ownership in the New York City area — called the mall an "attractive purchase" at $27 million.
Shortly after the change in ownership came a change in management for the mall.
Gina Speno, who became its general manager in 1999 and presided over the successful effort to lure Bass Pro there in 2004, announced her departure just two months after Abram bought the mall.
As suburban malls struggled against larger, metropolitan shopping centers, Bass Pro might not have considered Fingerlakes as its first-ever location in New York state if it wasn't for Speno, said Diane LaRue, the mall's retail and community events coordinator at the time.
"Bringing Bass Pro in was the thing that turned the mall around," she said. "She worked incredibly hard to get that. The entire management team worked together to make that happen, but Gina was really the catalyst."
Speno said her exit was unrelated to Abram's purchase. Nevertheless, the high on which she left the mall — and Abram purchased it — would wane two years later when the Great Recession hit.
As consumer confidence declined, so too did retail stores' bottom lines — and those of Fingerlakes Mall were no exception. With consumers also migrating more to online outlets like Amazon, the Aurelius shopping center began bleeding tenants.
The 2007 opening of Fingerlakes Crossing also turned out to be unhelpful timing, according to William Prosser, economics professor for Cayuga Community College.
"The Fingerlakes Mall has fallen on hard times," Prosser said. "Locally, Kohl's has outperformed J.C. Penney and Dick's has consistently outperformed Olympia Sports, whom also closed at the Fingerlakes Mall. Unfortunately for the mall, Kohl's and Dick's are located across the street."
Eventually, the staples unfurled. Mark's Corner Deli closed in July 2008 after more than two decades at the mall. The next month, Steve & Barry's, there since 2004, shut down its location as the chain tried unsuccessfully to stave off bankruptcy.
The REX electronics store, after 14 years at the mall, closed in 2009. K•B Toys. Waldenbooks. PacSun. Several attempts at a coffee shop. The bleeding has continued to 2015, with the shuttering of Littman Jewelers, Aeropostale and — largest of all — Sears, one of the mall's three anchor stores.
Most of the store closures were packaged with several others, nationwide, by their parent companies. Indeed, Sears Holdings also closed Kmarts in Fulton and DeWitt, as well as the Sears at The Shops at Ithaca Mall, all in 2014.
Though the mall may be a victim of circumstance in cases like Sears, other departing tenants have claimed they left following something more avoidable: unsteady, and ultimately failed, lease negotiations.
In 2009, owners of the Fun & Games arcade said mall management decided against renewing the arcade's lease after more than 10 years in the mall. Mall officials declined to confirm the claims.
Entertainment store F.Y.E. closed in early 2010. Store management said a lease agreement could not be reached, though neither F.Y.E. ownership nor the mall could be reached to confirm that. Similarly failed negotiations saw the closures of Bath & Body Works and the Hallmark store in 2013.
The Hallmark store spent part of its two decades at the mall close to Bass Pro once it opened. Jay Palmer, the greeting card store's owner, said the spot should have been a prime location, but it was not generating satisfactory revenue.
This was especially true when the mall wanted to raise his rent, he said.
The practice predates Abram's ownership. In 2004, owners of local businesses were outspoken about rent increases stemming from the addition of Bass Pro Shops and related renovations. Owners of Chinese restaurant Magic Wok, for example, said they were forced to close partly because their rent jumped from $2,000 per month to $9,000.
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In Palmer's case, however, the mall's diminishing foot traffic was the problem.
"The rent didn't warrant what I was bringing in, whether it was $10,000 a month or $2,000 a month," he said. "The amount of business I was doing didn't warrant what I was paying. It just didn't make business sense to stay."
Palmer's Hallmark ultimately relocated east to Auburn Plaza, purchasing another Hallmark store. Palmer said the move was a "no-brainer" given the good management at the Auburn location and the state of affairs with the mall.
"Everybody's leaving," he said, specifically referring to the Sears closure. "Nobody's staying."
There were two or three moments behind the scenes, Palmer said, when it looked as though the Hallmark store was going to stick around. As store representatives worked with mall ownership to negotiate a lease agreement, the mall — not local management, but ownership, he said — kept changing its mind.
"We'd have an agreement and then they'd change horses," he said. "Our lease people said they'd never experienced something like that in their life."
Fingerlakes Mall is owned by an enigma.
The pieces fall into place like a ghost story. Current and former employees attest that Edward Abram, Sam's son, is the one who works most directly with the mall. Multiple sources cited in this story say Sam might be in his 70s, and that Edward's nickname is "Woody."
Abram's purchase made Fingerlakes the only shopping center in the region not owned by a company specializing in mall management. The mall's development began with the Pyramid Companies in 1980; it traded hands a few times until Abram purchased it from Atlanta-based developer Gregory Greenfield & Associates.
The $27-million price Abram paid for the mall was deemed illogical by Syracuse agency Pomeroy Appraisal Associates, which appraised the shopping center's property value at $4 million in December and filed the report with the town of Aurelius. The mall commissioned Pomeroy after dropping out of its PILOT agreement that month due to falling several million dollars short of its projected value.
In evaluating Abram's purchase, Pomeroy identified Siba's virtual lack of real estate investment experience in upstate New York, saying Abram was uninformed about area property values.
"It is understood buyers' intention was to enact systematic rent increases thereby creating substantial revenue gains thereby justifying the high acquisition price," the report says. "Subsequent to the date of acquisition market, however, market conditions dramatically worsened thereby rendering such plans infeasible."
Rene Patterson, the mall's current general manager, said Abram and Siba tend to stay out of its day-to-day affairs. It's for that reason that they have consistently declined to comment to The Citizen about such matters, he said.
"It's not that they don't care, it's just — they're very private and they're really hands-off when it comes to management on the ground here," he said.
Between Speno's departure and Patterson's arrival, the mall's local administration has seen regular turnover, with at least six general managers — none lasting longer than three years. Jim Tull was employed the longest, from 2009 to 2012.
Tull, who now serves as the general manager for ShoppingTown Mall in DeWitt, said he and ownership tried to make plays for new tenants, particularly for the 10,000- to 20,000-square-foot "junior box" spaces, but the business just wasn't there.
He said several factors are working against the mall, namely its location to the west of Auburn. With growing development downtown and along Grant Avenue — leading to the 1993 opening of Wal-mart, among others — businesses tend to gravitate in those directions, Tull said.
"I don't recall any deals that were turned down by national tenants because of the rents," he said. "It just didn't happen. The deals weren't there at any price. The economy killed us. We came in right when it crashed and it went south from there."
Kathleen DeChick-Kelsey saw it differently during her brief time with the mall.
Serving as marketing manager for all of a few months in 2014, from around February to April, DeChick-Kelsey could only conclude that the downstate ownership's perception of central New York "is a little skewed" in terms of rent prices. She did acknowledge that she saw growth with the mall during that time period, citing then-developing conversations with Track Cinema and a lease renewal with J.C. Penney.
"I spoke with the owners once," she said. "My opinion was that they didn't really have a concept of what they should be charging in rent, but I think they were definitely interested in growth and that's what we were seeing."
DeChick-Kelsey was in her position during the last few months of Angie Helms' five-month tenure as general manager. When both she and Helms left in April, it appeared to be part of an internal overhaul that saw turnover in key administrative positions, which eventually led to Patterson's hiring in July.
The local administration's relationship with ownership was hands-off during that time, as well. DeChick-Kelsey said she was never given the names of the owners, though she did work with "Woody," as she knows him. She didn't even know their last names.
"It was basically understood that you didn't really talk to the owners," she said.
Bass Pro Shops General Manager Rob Barber, who's been at the store since it opened, has seen his share of management at Fingerlakes Mall. The store's relationship with the mall, he described, mirrors its design relative to the shopping center: connected, but autonomous.
Sears leaving, for example, hasn't affected Bass Pro, Barber said. Neither has the economy, for the most part. And the store holds its own events and specials during the year, separate from those hosted by mall management.
"Even though we're part of the mall, we're separate to it," he said. "I like to think we bring business into the mall."
In his 11 years at Bass Pro, Barber has seen managers come and go. Naturally, each one who came in had their own ideas of how to help the mall grow, he said. Some things worked, while some, he noted without specifics, didn't.
Barber said the current management team, run by Patterson, has a comparatively "aggressive" style in pursuing what can draw traffic to Aurelius, along with some of the newer initiatives implemented by the mall.
"They're open for a lot of ideas and suggestions more so than the previous management over the years, so we're pretty happy with them," he said.
It's perhaps because of that contrast in styles that Patterson did not have rave reviews for his immediate predecessors.
"Based on what I've seen and what I know," he said, "it wasn't good management."
(This is part one of a two-part series looking at Fingerlakes Mall on the occasion of its 35th anniversary. To read part two, click here.)