Town fights to turn retail tide

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MASSENA — When the Payless ShoeSource at the St. Lawrence Centre closed this spring, it could have been just another statistic in a grim year for retailers, one more struggling shop gone in a dilapidated mall.

For Erica Leonard, the mall’s manager, it was a call to action. Frustrated by a wave of store closings and suggestions from discouraged shoppers that they “just burn the place down,” Leonard went on the local radio station to urge listeners to stop the “negativity” and to start shopping there again.

She turned over vacant storefronts to local merchants who sell bourbon maple syrup and wood sculptures carved with chain saws. Near the mostly empty food court, a local Mohawk tribe member opened a specialty popcorn stand. And in the space that used to house a Sears store, residents of the area created a “winter wonderland” — an elfin village fashioned from discarded cardboard boxes that once held refrigerators.

“We are not going to sit and wallow,’’ said Karen M. St. Hilaire, who helped open the store selling locally made goods. “We need to figure out a better future. Don’t tell me it can’t happen.”

The decline of shopping malls and brick-and-mortar stores is well documented, reflecting the ascension of e-commerce and changes in how Americans shop. Nearly 7,000 stores closed in 2017, the most ever in a calendar year, according to the research firm Fung Global Retail & Technology.

Malls seeking a second act by shaking up their mix of stores or adding entertainment options face an uphill battle because their appeal for many shoppers may have worn off for good.

But the campaign to revive St. Lawrence Centre highlights a more emotional, even psychological challenge confronting American towns upended by a shifting economy. In many places, the desolate halls and tired window displays at the local mall are a wrenching reminder of what once was, and may never be again.

For generations, Massena was a manufacturing stronghold in an improbable place, far from interstate highways, on the north side of the Adirondack Mountains. Hydroelectric power from the St. Lawrence River attracted the aluminum giant Alcoa to operate several plants here.

It was in those better times, in the 1990s, that St. Lawrence Centre opened. The only mall in St. Lawrence County — an area larger than Delaware — it was the place to be on frigid nights, and there are plenty of those in Massena. The food court was packed with teenagers, people watchers and families having Friday night dinners. Children rode on a carousel near the entrance.

And Canadians came across the border for bargains. Ron Cook, 60, remembers the parking lot being littered with old shoes that Canadians had left behind so they could wear their new sneakers back across the border and avoid customs.

Cook, who lives on the nearby Mohawk tribal reservation, spent many hours watching his daughters play hockey at the mall’s ice rink, which is now closed.

Today, fewer than half of the 84 storefronts are occupied. The sole remaining restaurant in the dimly lit food court is a Wendy’s.

Massena has struggled alongside its mall. Alcoa operates only one smelting plant now.

“You try to be as positive as you can,” said Liza Akey, 42, who works in a hair salon at the mall. “But you start to lose hope.”

Where many residents see sadness, Leonard, the mall manager, sees great potential.

“People would come up to me and say this place will never be anything, just like Massena,” she said. “I just stopped listening to them.”

Earlier this year, a group of Canadian real estate developers bought the mall and made some basic improvements: new lighting in the hallways, patches to the leaky roof, cleaning supplies for the janitors.

After being hired in April, Leonard set out to get control of the place. She said she had confronted a pimp who appeared to have brought “his girls” to the nail salon, and told a pack of teenagers who she believed were dealing drugs that she would have them arrested.

The harder task was filling up the empty storefronts and giving residents a reason to return.

She found a new kind of anchor: a group of residents who had formed a company, North Country Showcase, to sell wares from local artists. It has filled the vacated Express store with bowls, mittens, mugs and miniature wooden reindeer earrings carved by a retired technician at the power company.

An Amish farmer delivers handmade fly swatters and other goods to the store by bus since he does not drive a car. The store writes him a letter if they sell out and it needs him to make more because he does not use a phone.

“Quite frankly, I am tired of our future being controlled by corporations that live in other places, whether it is Alcoa or these corporate stores,” said St. Hilaire, president of North Country Showcase.

Holiday sales at the store have been twice what St. Hilaire expected. One customer bought a life-size wooden statue of a firefighter, paying for it with $700 in dollar bills she had saved in a plastic shopping bag.

At the stand selling homemade popcorn, Melissa Conners said she gets calls from parents asking their children’s favorite flavor because they want a surprise to slip into Christmas stockings.

“You can’t get that from shopping online,” said Conners, whose business card identifies her as a “popcornologist.”

Lenny Nesbit and his partner, Jason Foster, run an event-planning business, Elite Events by Lenny, at St Lawrence Centre. They got a break on their rent for arranging the mall’s Christmas decorations. They are also raising a 7-year old son, who likes to spend time in the mall’s hair salon watching women get their hair washed while his fathers work nearby.

“This is our home,” said Nesbit, who came up with the idea for the winter wonderland at the former Sears site.

There has been talk about replacing the ice rink with a turf arena for indoor sports, according to the local public radio station, which has closely chronicled the mall’s attempted rebirth. Some employees recently spotted a group of men in business suits who they believed were acting as scouts for big retailers seeking to locate in Massena.

Leonard, the mall manager, is not naive about the challenges facing St. Lawrence Centre. The Bon-Ton department store is scheduled to close in January, leaving another huge empty space.

Leonard tries to focus on the victories, however small. This month, hundreds of people came to see Santa Claus pulled through the mall on a gigantic sleigh, while a Girl Scout troop walked in front of him.

Leonard remembers seeing a line of people buying lunch that day at Wendy’s, and the tables in the food court were filled.

“It was how it used to look,” she said.

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