TOWN OF ULSTER–John Mulherin may be an out-of-towner, but the Georgia native has noticed something striking about Downtown Kingston.
“It has a sense of place,” he said. “They’ve done hardscapes. They’ve done banner-pole signs. When you hit that area, you know you’re in that area.”
Mulherin, the vice president of government relations at Hull Property Group, believes that same sense of coherenence can occur on the Route 9W business corridor in the town of Ulster.
“We’re going to up our game. We’re going to try to leverage that and ask other property owners to up their game,” he said.
Hull Property Group, an Augusta-based real-estate company, bought the beleaguered Hudson Valley Mall last January, and already, the game has been “upped.”
Interior cosmetic improvements like new ceilings and lighting, carpeting and historic murals covering empty storefronts are just the beginning, according to Mulherin, who granted HVNN.com an exclusive video interview earlier this week.
Once the weather breaks, mall owners plan to upgrade the mall’s exterior.
“We’ll give it some verticality, some prominence, a stacked-stone look and things of that nature, and then, down on the corridor, we’ll put in all new signage and a new electronic reader board that says, ‘Hey, we’re proud of our property, and we’ve got something going on.'”
Mulherin’s whole premise is that the corridor stretching from Adams Fairacre Farms to Kohl’s department store is a regional shopping destination.
What he envisions is fellow retailers getting on board to improve their properties and share some physical similarities.
“It’s as easy as planting flowers, cutting grass or trimming our bushes the same way to create that sense of coherency,” he said. “It doesn’t cost anything, and we think we’ll all benefit.
“Our company is committed to leading that effort and starting that conversation and having one of our staff members go up and down the corridor and talk to folks. We think once we get that narrative going, everyone will see the benefit.”
It all adds up to making the corridor even more inviting, Mulherin said, and ultimately, bringing more shoppers to the area.
As far as the mall is concerned, the overall vision is to transform it into a fashion destination, primarily targeting the female shopper.
“There’s no need to go to Poughkeepsie. There’s no need to go to Albany. We’ll have the offering right here, and we think with the aesthetic improvements we’ve made to the property–the stabilization and the transformation of the property– we’re going to have a chance to have those national tenants move in here over time.”
The work has now begun in earnest to fill the dead retail space at the long-dying shopping center.
Earlier this month, Sears, a 29-year tenant, made the list of 103 stores closing across the country. In the spring of 2016, Macy’s closed. A year earlier, JC Penney vacated.
The Hudson Valley Mall has about 50 tenants left in its 765,000-square-foot space. Target, Dicks and Best Buy remain, along with a few specialty chains like Payless Shoe Source, Zumiez and Victoria’s Secret.
Mulherin said Hull’s team members are aggressively pursuing national contacts that have worked with them at other malls.
“What we’ll do is go through our portfolio, our contacts with these different national tenants and get them interested in the market,” he said.
“It’s really market-specific as to what the demographics are, but we have a full range of tenants that we’re looking at. We’ve certainly done a gap analysis, and we’re going to try to attract everyone of them to this property.”
Mulherin says all of this with complete confidence in Hull’s model of buying and reinvigorating malls that have been on a “downward spiral.”
“It’s just really hard work. We believe if you create the right atmosphere, folks will come and shop. Will this mall ever be 100 percent full again? I hope. We’re not banking on that, but our operating model allows us to do stuff that we don’t require 100 percent occupancy.
“We don’t have a secret sauce, but what we do have is we the ability to invest. We’ve never sold a mall property, and being privately held, we don’t have an artificial shareholders meeting, so our investment and return can be over a longer period of time. In that situation, we think we’re always going to be a little better off and be able to make the improvements to be successful.”
Hull Property Group, one of the largest privately owned retail real-estate companies in the United States, has about 100 employees, with 10 on its marketing team.
Already, that team, led by Coles Doyle, has a host of ideas to bring the community back to the mall. In March, an event called Color for a Cause will feature a competition among area organizations to design murals for a $250 cash prize.
Further down the road, Hull expects to host events that recognize student reading accomplishments and a Christmas decorating contest among its tenants.
The company runs its 30 malls, mainly in the Southeast and Midwest, from its central office in Georgia. While Hull has kept some of the administrative staff under the previous owners, most of the work is done remotely.
Mulherin said he visits the region frequently and has enjoyed getting acquainted with the locals and dining at restaurants in Uptown and Downtown Kingston.
He praised area leadership and said Hull has high hopes that the right changes are about to happen.
“I promise you, every person that walks back in the mall, if you’ve not been here in five years, you’ll walk in and say, ‘Wow, that’s different. That’s neat.’ You’re going to see a photograph. You’re going to see a mural and you’re going to tell three people at church.
“The next thing you know, we create this momentum. That’s the key to these properties. They’ve been on a downward spiral. You stop the bleed and get them on the upward swing again, and, in the process, we think we have a pretty good retail offering for other tenants to come to. The next thing you know, we’re back in business.”