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Rivals each have a stake in Southern Park Mall's future

Washington Prime Group is embarking on a $30 million redevelopment of the Boardman mall that — like many of its counterparts across the country — has seen better days. And the Cafaro Co. is not just an interested counterpart. It's a tenant.

Owners of the Mahoning Valley's rivaling malls used to be able to trade barbs from a safe distance of 15 miles.

Eastwood Mall was developed in 1969 by the Cafaro Co. in Niles; Southern Park Mall was developed in 1970 by the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp.

Today Southern Park Mall is owned by Washington Prime Group and it plans to embark on a $30 million redevelopment of the Boardman retail center that — like many of its counterparts across the country — has seen better days.

And the Cafaro Co. is not just an interested counterpart. It's a tenant.

All of that formed an interesting backdrop to Thursday's Mahoning County commissioners meeting.

"I'm not some fancy person that's speaking from some ivory tower," Washington Prime CEO Lou Conforti said. "If we don't revitalize or invigorate Boardman or places like Boardman, we're screwed as a country."

Conforti, a Chicago native, spoke candidly about the mall's future and even quipped about a possible pizza cook-off event. It's no small wonder why Denise DeBartolo York, who attended the commissioners meeting, said of Conforti: "He reminds me of my father."

In February 2019, the Cafaro Co. made the surprising decision to purchase the parcel of Southern Park Mall that once housed Dillard's — as well as property south of the mall on California Avenue — for $8.92 million. 

That left observers to wonder how this 50-year rivalry will play out. 

"Regardless of the barbs that they've directed toward us, we're going to maintain gentility and just work our asses off to do what's right for the community," Conforti told Mahoning Matters on Thursday after the Mahoning County commissioners approved the company's request for a tax abatement.

The abatement, which was approved by the Boardman Local School Board in December, exempts mall owner Washington Prime Group from having to pay property taxes on the assessed value of new structures at the site for 15 years. Through this and other measures, the company intends to recoup about $6 million of the $30 million Southern Park Mall investment. 

When Cafaro Co. co-president Anthony Cafaro announced Jan. 6 that department store Boscov's was coming to Eastwood Mall, the barbs weren't subtle. He pointedly said that the renovation of the Sears wing would be completed without assistance in the form of incentives or tax abatements. 

"While others in the region may be tearing down buildings, at Eastwood, we're continuing to build, renovate, reinvent and expand," Cafaro said. He was referring to Southern Park Mall, as its redevelopment includes the demolition of the building that housed Sears to make room for an event space called DeBartolo Commons. 

At a recent Boardman township trustees meeting, trustee Tom Costello said, "The Cafaros would like nothing better than to see the Southern Park Mall fail."

When Mahoning Matters asked Cafaro about the statement, he laughed and said, "That's untrue. That's not a statement that I or anybody at our company has ever said."

"Our goal is to work in harmony with them in redeveloping our parcel," said Cafaro. 

Regardless of the veracity of Costello's comment, it speaks to the suspicion that Cafaro's investment could be used to derail the redevelopment project. 

"Over my dead body. I won't let them," said Conforti. 

What's known as a reciprocal easement is in place between the companies. The agreement establishes certain rules for each company to determine how one's development can affect the other.

"It's done in every single asset in the United States," said Conforti. 

"One can't go and do something without consultation with the other," said Cafaro. 

Cafaro said redevelopment plans for the former Dillard's are on hold until the company and potential tenants can assess the impact of WPG's redevelopment project. But it's unlikely that retail will fill the entire 180,000-square-foot space, Cafaro explained. Rather, the company is considering creating offices in the space.

"That's an area we're very much focused on. There seems to be a demand in that market place," said Cafaro. "Retail certainly is a possibility, probably more so on the first floor."

The parcel is a two-level building attached to a one-level mall. Because two-level retailers get less activity on their upper levels, Cafaro said, it would make sense to use the upper level of the parcel for office space.

"We welcome an adaptive reuse that diversifies tenancy and adds dynamism," said Conforti. "They made an investment, and until deemed otherwise, we're going to work in concert with one another."

The two companies have been communicating about the mall redevelopment and the adaptation of the former Dillard's. About their discussions, Conforti said, "It's been cordial."

In describing the Cafaro Co.'s approach to developing Eastwood Mall, Cafaro conveys that this incremental strategy sets the company apart. 

"We've continuously reinvested, diversified, adapted to the demands of the marketplace. We haven't just said, 'Here's our plan,'" Cafaro said. 

And for him, “This is the place we've all grown up.”

The evidence was on the armoire behind him, where four generations of Cafaros smiled from dozens of framed photographs. 

Conforti, though he hails from the Windy City, contends that his plan is also conducted in concert with the community. 

"We believe that what we're doing benefits the community and strengthens the legacy of the DeBartolo family, which is very important to us," Conforti said.


Jess Hardin

About the Author: Jess Hardin

Jess Hardin is a reporter for Mahoning Matters. She grew up in Pittsburgh and last worked at The Vindicator. Jess graduated from Georgetown University.
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