This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Stan Scheetz’s name.
HARRISVILLE TWP. — Stan Scheetz went to the Ohio Station Outlets during the holiday season and noticed a few things that left the Medina attorney to wonder what was happening to the retail giant shoppers can easily eye from Interstate 71.
“I went to find Yankee Candle and they were gone, then I went to Rocky Mountain Chocolate and I got my chocolate, but then I went back to get something else on Jan. 3 and they were gone,” Scheetz, 71, said Thursday.
Scheetz said he then proceeded to walk around the outlet mall, and noticed several more stores that were in the process of closing down, including Jockey and Levi’s.
Store closings in a shopping center probably wouldn’t raise an alarm with the causal shoppers. They are there to peruse sales racks, possibly find a deal or two and purchase gifts for family and friends. Scheetz does those things, but he is also well-known in Medina County for having worked on the original project that brought the outlet mall to fruition.
He sees the retail space in the eyes of some who has been there from the beginning, relished in its heyday.
Whether the outlet mall is heading in a different direction is still yet to be determined — mall representatives provided limited information by email when reached Thursday.
Nonetheless, there are some clear signs Ohio Station Outlets is struggling, maybe even buckling under the economic pressures that often befall retail destinations that cater to the thrifty shopper.
Scheetz said with most outlet malls, the life-cycle is between 25 and 40 years. After that, many properties begin to transition to other uses such as office space or incubator businesses. He said he believes making this type of transition could be on the horizon for Ohio Station Outlets.
But that is just his opinion. Scheetz said he has no official role with the outlet, which was purchased by Namdar Reality Group in December 2017.
Ohio Station Outlets is entering its 23rd year.
Not a good situation
In terms of shopping volume, a reported half million people shopped at Ohio Station Outlets last year.
The outlet mall has served the area since 1996.
Site general manager and marketing director Heather Broadsword said in an email Thursday that the 312,546-square-foot railroad themed retail space currently has 41 retail stores and 12 office spaces filled.
There are also 17 retail units currently available for rent.
Broadsword offered no additional details on attempts to fill the retail space.
Retail real estate authority Jeff Green of the Phoenix-based Jeff Green Partners said he can see the challenges facing Ohio Station Outlets.
“I can see there are certain limitations of it. Number 1, parking is not all that accessible,” Green said Thursday. “You have to do a lot of walking to get to the mall.”
Green said that while having the train, which takes shoppers around the outlet during the spring, summer and fall, helps some, Ohio Station’s situation is still not as good when compared with other outlet malls in the area.
Aurora Farms Premium Outlets sits just 50 miles to the northeast, while Tanger Outlets Columbus is about 75 miles south in Delaware County.
“I would say some of the newer ones closer to a strong population base are doing the best, meaning those around Cleveland, Akron, are likely doing the best,” Green said.
Tanger Outlets is located in Delaware County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the state with a boom in population and development. And recent news of a mega entertainment development on the way only adds to the evidence that growth near that shopping mecca will continue.
In June, Columbus Business First reported that New Albany-based Blue Horseshoe Ventures Ltd. is planning the construction of Planet Oasis next to the outlet mall with an anticipated 15 to 20 major attractions, including an indoor water park, a wave park for surfing, an outdoor lake and skate park.
Economic factors drive shoppers
Green, who in 2016 was commissioned by Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda to study the highest and best uses for Midway Mall in Lorain County, said the popularity of outlet malls has always ebbed and flowed with the strength of the economy. He dismissed the notion that Midway Mall should be turned into an outlet mall, saying then that the outlet mall market was oversaturated.
He talked then about the connection between the economy and outlet malls and returned to that notice in relation to Ohio Station Outlets.
“It happened in the (early) ’90s, when traditional retail slowed down and outlet retail got greater,” Green said. “Then as the economy improved, the outlet retail waned.”
Green said outlet retail took off again following the economic downtown between 2008 and 2009, but by the time new outlet malls were constructed, there was already another shift away from outlet malls taking place.
“It is now an overbuilt segment,” Green added.
It was in 2008 when Ohio Station Outlets — then called Lodi Station Outlets under the ownership of Gilad Development Inc. — staged a grand reopening. That is when the train debuted, walkways around the mall were named after old railways, pictures of historic railways dotted the facility and the mall even boasted its own original soundtrack to be played through the sound system. It was about creating a shopping experience.
Experiences of today
Carol and Norm Heinle of Brunswick braved the cold Thursday afternoon to seek out the Corningware outlet that was previously located at Ohio Station Outlets only to be told that it had recently closed down.
“She said their last day was yesterday, but everything cleared out over Christmas, that they got rid of everything,” said Norm, 74.
The couple said it had been about two years since they had last been to the outlet.
Cheryl Markley of Mansfield said Thursday that she was surprised to see how many vacancies were currently at the outlet, but she enjoys shopping there.
“There is one near Columbus that I have gone to once or twice, but I like the layout of this one,” Markley said.
‘Not a catalyst’
Namdar Realty Group, which owns Ohio Station Outlets, also owns Elyria’s Midway Mall and Severance Town Center in Cleveland Heights. It is a New York-based real estate investment firm that has made a push into Ohio with the purchase of a number of shopping and retail properties. They have at least two dozen parcels in their vast portfolio.
They are known for making purchases — sometimes coming in as last-minute bidders in auctions as was the case with Midway Mall — but not saying much publicly about development plans.
In an August 2017 story by Cleveland.com in relation to Cleveland Heights City Council’s hope for redeveloping the shopping center, Namdar was characterized by a consultant as willing to cooperate with redevelopment plans but not “necessarily interested in spending money to be the catalyst.”
‘These things happen’
There are different indicators that will showcase an outlet mall’s strength that are noticeable to the consumer, such as a high number of vacancies, while other indicators are not quite visible on the surface, said Green.
“Number two is a little harder to grasp, but I deal with this every day,” he said. “(That) is knowing which concepts are at risk.”
Green gave the example of children’s clothing retailer Gymboree, which announced Wednesday its second bankruptcy filing in two years.
“They are supposed to be closing 900 stores, they only have 1,100, so you have to believe the Gymboree outlet in this outlet center is closing,” Green said.
Green said that he is aware of several proposals for outlet mall redevelopment, but has actually seen few come to fruition.
Scheetz, who served as the attorney for the family that sold the land to be developed into the outlet mall and later helped with rezoning the land, said he wants to keep the conversation about the future of Ohio Station Outlets positive.
“These things happen, somebody else has built something bigger and better and closer to a heavier population and then the draw goes another way,” Scheetz said.