Shoppers wonder if Century III Mall could be closing for good after tenants received letters telling them to vacate their spaces.
“It kind of breaks my heart,” said Laurel Pershing, 74, of Elizabeth Township, who has shopped at the 1.3-million-square-foot mall since its 1979 opening. “It was a beautiful mall back then.”
Some tenants of the sparsely occupied mall received letters from building owners notifying them they have to move out within 30 days.
The past few weeks have been a roller coaster ride for mall tenants.
The mall was forced to close its doors Feb. 8, two days after West Mifflin officials deemed the property “unsafe and uninhabitable” because of a broken water and fire suppression system. Anchor stores JCPenney and Dick’s Sporting Goods were not impacted by the closure and remain open.
Todd McDevitt, owner of New Dimension Comics which operated from Century III for about 15 years, said the issue started Feb. 1 when a sprinkler pipe burst above his store. Despite some damage, the store opened the next day.
After mall owners — Las Vegas-based Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC — sent crews in to address the issue, things seemed to be looking up, tenants said.
“They were making great strides,” McDevitt said.
West Mifflin officials then asked Moonbeam Capital for a pressure test of the suppression system, Mayor Chris Kelly said. To his knowledge, the test is yet to be performed.
In the meantime, tenants started receiving notices to leave.
“That says to me that (the owners) don’t care,” Kelly said.
Moonbeam Capital purchased the mall in 2013. Company representatives did not return repeated calls for comment.
At the time, the company announced plans to improve the property and bring in new stores, Kelly said.
A few years later, the mall’s general manager was charged with theft. In 2014, John A. Sabino was charged with taking $51,100 from mall accounts to cover gambling debts. Executives from Moonbeam Capital Investments LLC were quoted in an affidavit, saying Sabino created payable vouchers for events purportedly scheduled to occur at the mall and used them for his personal benefit.
The incident was a red flag to borough officials, Kelly said.
“That was the first sign that they weren’t into this to keep it,” he said.
Two years ago, the company stopped communicating altogether with the mayor, who was pushing for improvement. The mall, instead, faced decline.
A gradual decline
Century III Mall was scheduled for sheriff’s sale in April, but the sale was postponed. Moonbeam Capital then filed for bankruptcy in September.
The company recently requested a $5 million line of credit so the mall could remain open as it continues its case through bankruptcy court.
For tenants and shoppers alike, the entire situation has been frustrating and confusing.
Arlene and Anthony Perhac, 85 and 87 respectively, of West Mifflin waited outside JCPenney before its 10 a.m. opening Monday morning, where a rush of about 10 people headed to the doors as soon as employees unlocked them.
The couple has been shopping at Century III since the 1980s.
“You had to step aside to let people go by you,” Anthony Perhac recalls of the mall’s glory days.
In addition to the decline of the mall, shoppers — and those living in nearby neighborhoods in the South Hills — also lament the deplorable road conditions surrounding the property.
Moonbeam owns the road, and company officials once promised to fix them, Kelly said.
“We can’t repair their roads,” he said of the borough.
Anthony Perhac said he’s surprised he has tires left on his car after driving through what he estimates are 100 or more potholes between Route 885 and the mall.
“They ought to be ashamed of themselves,” Pershing said of Moonbeam, for letting the roads get so bad cars have to dart around the road to avoid the gaping holes.
McDevitt said customers were willing to navigate the damaged roads to get to his niche shop. He once saw his location in Century III Mall as a “giant opportunity,” and said there was plenty of space for his shop to operate.
On Feb. 14, McDevitt received a 30-day notice to vacate the mall. But, things turned around rather quickly. He messaged The Waterfront, which had a space ready for his store within hours.
The space — located between Michaels and Petco — is more than twice the size of the shop’s Century III location. Even 3 Rivers Comicon, which New Dimension Comics held at Century III for the last three years, will move to The Waterfront this May.
“I’m sure someone has something planned for it,” McDevitt said of Century III Mall. “But, whatever that grand plan is, I’m not going to be a part of it.”
Chris Donaldson, manager and owner of Air Too Fly, a custom air brush company that has operated from Century III for more than 15 years, had hope last week things would turn around at the mall. His store, which also relied on repeat customers and operates on a month-to-month lease, had not receive a lease termination notice as of Feb. 18, Donaldson said.
“Sometimes, it was peaceful,” he said of working in a mall that hardly anyone shopped at. “Other times, it was, ‘God, it’s so boring and lonely.’”