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Charlotte Area

Interest Brewing For Vacant Eastland Mall

Charlotte taxpayers may not know it, but they own a mall.  The city bought Eastland Mall  back in August for $13 million.  When it opened in 1975, it was the largest mall in North Carolina. Then came a decade of steady decline. By 2010 it was completely vacant. WFAE's Julie Rose reports on the latest effort to bring Eastland Mall back to life.

There's a musty smell and a post-apocalyptic silence at Eastland Mall. The power's off in most of it.  The once-famous ice rink long dry. Stores stripped bare. But someone forgot to take down the fake flowers lining the ledge of the atrium. The pink blossoms seem forlorn, out-of-place.

In a former women's clothing shop, city Development and Investment Manager Peter Zeiler hosted a "show-and-tell" Wednesday morning for potential buyers and developers of the mall.

Track lighting meant to cast a warm glow on the latest fashion illuminated - instead - an aerial photo of the 80-acre Eastland Mall property, which the city bought for $13 million last summer.  That was in addition to nearly half a million dollars the city spent on options to buy the mall years earlier, but then lost when the price was too high and the council opted out. 

City officials figure they've spent just about enough on Eastland Mall.  Zeiler was direct about that as he pitched the property.

"We're looking to create a financially viable, phased-project using private sector funding," said Zeiler. "That's our code word of saying, 'No, don't come to us asking for $150 million or $300 million in city bond funds.'"

Of the 30 or so people in the meeting, there seem to be only a handful with somewhat serious intentions for Eastland Mall.  Among them, Atlanta developer Bob Silverman who says his business is "finding new uses for obsolete buildings."

"This might qualify," he says with a chuckle. But Silverman says the idea of no more public money in the project is a "non-starter."

"Can't do it," he says, flatly.

Zeiler takes the group on a brief walk through the empty mall halls to a railing overlooking the old ice rink.

"We'd love to take you around further, but we've shut down some of the electrical for cost savings," he explains. 

City officials are keen on seeing the mall's one-million-square feet turned into a film production hub.  But Silverman says studios and sound stages are very expensive, hard to finance and would make little sense if Republican legislators deliver on threats to end lucrative tax incentives that lure filming to the state.

Charlotte developer Monte Ritchey agrees.   

"There's been a lot of energy and hubbub around studios, but I question whether it'll end up being a final component of the development," says Ritchey, whose company Conformity Corporation worked on the Lowe's store and residential development in SouthEnd.

Experience with large-scale projects is the top criteria the city will look for in evaluating proposals for Eastland Mall.  But the man who's been most vocal about his plans has no major development experience.

Bert Hesse, CEO of Studio Charlotte Development has a 10-year vision that would happen in three phases, starting with sound stages and a film school, then an office park and finally, a North Carolina Film Museum.

Studio Charlotte Development  claims to have $150 million lined up from a New York investment bank. Hesse – like other developers who came for an inside glimpse of the empty mall Wednesday morning – says the city is not off the hook yet when it comes to putting money into the site. 

At a minimum, the city may need to demolish the buildings, which aren't practical for studio sound stages.  

Rick Lazes goes even further: "The  city has to support this politically, socially, environmentally and financially if they want it to happen."

Lazes is CEO of the ARK Group which developed the NC Music Factory with some help from state and local government.  He's hatching a plan for Eastland Mall he won't share just yet, but says it won't be a film studio.  

City officials say they're open to any good idea – so long as it revitalizes the blighted Eastland area; is underway within two years – and ideally – takes the mall off the city's hands for good.

Final proposals are due in May.