With 36 Tenants, Manager Montanti Says Entertainment Will Invigorate County’s Largest Warm, Covered Space
By JIM KEVLIN
ONEONTA – On Feb. 19, the national chain, Payless Shoesource, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and announced it is closing its 2,500 North American stores, including one in Southside Mall.
That made it a local news story.
But right down the marble-tiled mezzanine, the expansive Shoe Department is doing so well it’s looking to expand, Mall Manager Luisa Montanti will tell you.
While the national news about traditional covered shopping news may not be good – nor is it in many sectors with the rise of e-shopping – individual locales can and do buck the trend.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Montanti said in an interview in her office just off the main corridor. Seven years at the mall’s helm, she previously worked for JC Penney and OfficeMax, and had run her own party-goods store in Price Chopper plaza. “We have too many consumers who depend on what we offer.”
Over the years, Oneonta, because of the distance to Albany and Binghamton, has shown it can draw shoppers from as far away as 50 miles, and that remains true.
“We are a hub; a mini-Vestal,” said Montanti. Over the years, big retailers have found, on opening stores locally, that they’re getting more business than their projections anticipated.
JC Penney, the only department store in Greater Oneonta, remains the poster child.
“This is the highest-profit store they have in the country,” said Montanti. “We in Oneonta will never lose JC Penney, unless the entire company closes.”
There’s churn, yes, but with 36 stores in the local mall, that’s to be expected.
Bed Bath & Beyond, which closed this year, didn’t turn out to be a good fit with the market, but another retailer – Harbor Freight, a quality tool discounter – has already been recruited to fill that space.
And TJ Maxx – Montanti raises her eyebrows – is packing them in.
Because consumers now have the option to shop from home, TJ Maxx has created what all stores strive to create, she said: “Quality of product, an AMAZING experience, and low cost.”
She spoke a bit about unfairness in the sales tax: Bricks-and-mortar stores have to charge sales tax; online retailers, whose virtual stores don’t have the same costs, are exempt from sales tax as well.
That inequity has to be addressed elsewhere. Meanwhile, malls are strategizing about their mission, and one option we can expect to see more of at Southside Mall is entertainment.
Upstate, Syracuse malls are leading the way. Destiny USA has a zipline and obstacle course. Syracuse’s Crossgates has opened Lucky Strikes, a comedy club. One mall installed a bowling alley.
Southsides move in that direction began with the just-completed renovations of Southside Cinemas, which have seen a rise in patrons as a result, she said.
Already, the mall has six restaurants, all doing well, she said.
As the largest heated inside space for the general public in a county that’s been getting a lot of single-digit weather lately, Southside Mall offers something no one else can, Montanti said, strolling past Maurice’s in the direction of Kay Jewelers.
Tom & Doug’s Cruise-In Cabin Fever Car Show had just set up, and Montanti paused by the vintage Sweet Dreams ice-cream truck, a turquoise-and-white confection.
She looked over at a shiny black Mustang convertible, and recounted a conversation she overheard the day before. “Look, hon,” a wife said to her husband. “Remember our white Mustang when we got married?”
“It gave me goosebumps,” Montanti said.
The Cabin Fever Car Show is a popular perennial, but so is Mall-o-Ween. A Home Show is planned March 23; a Vendor & Craft Show on March 30. In January, a job fair attracted 35 vendors. And there are classes, movies and community events, promoted via the mall’s Facebook page.
By now, Montanti has arrived at Kay Jewelers, where manager Bob McCann is thrilled by a 20 percent increase in sales since the first of the year.
“You’ve got to have a strong team” McCann explained. “You have to have people who are going to lead and who are going to follow.”