Kempner: Uh-oh. Gwinnett Place mall owner has second thoughts on redevelopment

Almost four years after buying Gwinnett Place, the mall’s owner has determined that, on second thought, it doesn’t know what exactly it will do with the fast-fading property.

Earlier this year, the company had said it would submit redevelopment plans to the county in March. That didn’t happen.

Instead, an executive who was handling the plans has left the company.

Now, his boss, Moonbeam Capital Investments CEO Steven Maksin is no longer offering a new timetable for what will happen to the mall that was once Gwinnett’s center of commerce.

“It’s important not to be in a position to be the boy who cried wolf too many times that he is not taken seriously,” he told me.

Too late.

Maksin, who grew up in the Ukraine and now lives in New York and Las Vegas, doesn’t sound like a man feeling the pressure. He cited a movie line for me to share with people who doubt Moonbeam’s ability or willingness to revitalize the area: “I’m not your best friend. I’m your only friend.”

The words are delivered in the movie ‘Other People’s Money’ by a corporate raider nicknamed “Larry the liquidator.”

Like a growing number of malls, Gwinnett Place has deep problems. Shoppers are scarce there. The numerous vacant storefronts along the mall’s quiet promenades are like missing teeth in a smile.

But from Maksin’s view, his firm is the only one lined up to turn it around.

Just not necessarily in the time frame one of his top lieutenants had shared with me in January, which was the last time I asked about delays in Moonbeam’s projections. At the time I shared my wife’s nickname for the center: “Sad Mall.”

It hasn’t gotten any happier.

“We still have some obstacles that we want to make sure we are clear on,” Maksin recently told me.

He said he wants to wait to see whether Sears files for bankruptcy protection, which could affect space the retailer owns at Gwinnett Place. He also doesn’t want to embark on a costly remake without important new tenants committed up front, which he has yet to get. Recently, a prospect took “a step back” on plans to build and fill retail space at the mall.

When will all that be settled? Who knows.

Developing is often a game for gamblers. Massive redevelopments aren't easy to pull off. Moonbeam didn't buy Gwinnett Place expecting to have to do one. But as the pool of retailers thins, the company's options appear slim.

I asked Maksin if it might be years before he submits plans to the county.

“Absolutely not,” he told me. “We would like to do it this year.”

He quickly clarified that he was referring to the timing of turning in the project’s “first sketch.”

His people have been talking to Gwinnett officials for months, if not years. That’s long enough that some had hoped Moonbeam was beyond the stage of presenting first sketches, intriguing doodles and rough outlines.

Maksin said he wants to reduce shopping space and add apartments, entertainment options and conversions to offices. But he hasn’t nailed down what mix he wants for each.

(He said he’d need government approvals for things like zoning variances, but full-blown rezonings wouldn’t be necessary.)

“We would be happy to spend money at Gwinnett Place mall. But we will not do it unless we have a clear understanding we can make money for ourselves and our partners and that, long term, the project will be sustainable.”

Moonbeam hasn’t completed a redevelopment of the magnitude he’s talking about at Gwinnett Place, which could consume “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

Formed in 2011, the company bought several struggling malls around the nation, apparently paying bargain basement prices.

Moonbeam leaders say they successfully recruited retailers to boost a mall in Colorado and have attracted call centers to operate in former stores at another near Orlando. But news reports highlight struggles at properties they have in other communities, including Baton RougePittsburghSyracuse, NY. and New Jersey.

Closer to home, I hear doubts from store owners and shoppers about Gwinnett Place’s future with Moonbeam.

“They don’t care anything about this mall,” said Brandy Tyler, a Duluth resident who frequented Gwinnett Place as a teen and now visits only occasionally as a mom. She stopped in the Macy’s Backstage, a bargain section that just opened in the larger store. (It’s probably the brightest news Gwinnett Place has had in years.)

As we chatted, Tyler recalled wave after wave of retailers that have fled the Gwinnett center.

She told me about past problems with leaks in the roof. As she pointed to the ceiling I saw what seemed to look like rudimentary patches. A mall escalator was cordoned off when I visited recently, just as it was four months ago when I last stopped by.

“I hope they can get it together,” Tyler said, “because otherwise they aren’t going to make it.”

Maksin, though, doesn’t seem ruffled.

“Wait and see,” he said to tell people in the community. “We will surprise you…. Positively surprise you.”

That would be surprising.

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