Like many other older retail centers in the city, Columbus Square was emptying out, looking beat up and perceived by some as a dangerous place.
As stores fled to newer, trendier areas, Columbus Square, at Rt. 161 and Cleveland Avenue, was well on its way to the retail scrap heap.
But owner George Hadler said, "Enough." He wasn’t going to sell. And because of the heavy traffic through the area -- more than 80,000 cars a day -- he thought the center was worth salvaging.
Hadler spent $1.5 million in the past two years to spruce up the center with landscaping, lighting and a resurfaced parking lot. Crews painted the buildings and added canopies. He sank $750,000 more into the bowling alley, including $300,000 for a new bar.
Across Rt. 161, Northland Plaza, acquired by a New York company a year ago, remains mostly empty with an unclear future.
Nassimi Realty Corp. bought Northland -- not yet 20 years old -- for $3.6 million on Dec. 22, 2006. Hadler said the price showed how far the property had declined. He thinks it could have sold for $20 million had it been full.
Company President Mike Nassimi said he hopes to have a plan for the center by spring. His company specializes in buying depressed sites and reworking them. He feels the long-term potential is good for the same reason the shopping center worked in the first place: It’s in the heart of an urban area at the intersection of two major roads.
"We first need a new anchor to move it forward," he said.
Northland Community Council President Dave Paul said residential neighborhoods are tightly integrated with shopping areas, and when retail declines, homeowners see the area as vulnerable. He and Mayor Lynn Eisentrout of nearby Minerva Park are pleased with what Hadler has done with Columbus Square.
Built in 1980, the 550,000-square-foot Columbus Square once had a Woolco discount store, a Big Bear grocery and a Revco pharmacy. Over time, the center became rundown, and keeping tenants was difficult. Some customers worried about their safety.
"Frankly, it was getting very ratty and intimidating," Paul said.
Columbus Square replaced its anchors with others to serve the changing neighborhood: Ohio Thrift, ApplianceSmart and the Sell and Show Merchandise new- and used-furniture store. Hadler has aggressively marketed the center through a newsletter and weekly newspapers.
The center is now more than 80 percent occupied, sprinkled with tenants catering to Columbus immigrants as well as longtime residents. Asian Market, Mi Mi Vietnamese Deli and the Al-Ameer Mediterranean Restaurant are following in the steps of the Nazareth Restaurant and Deli, which has been a part of the shopping center since 1989.
Hadler recently won a beautification award from the Northland Area Business Association.
Northland Plaza was built in 1988 and was once home to retailers such as a Marshalls department store and Service Merchandise, a catalog showroom store. Larry O’Neal remembered years ago when he sometimes couldn’t find a parking spot. "Kind of like Easton," said O’Neal, who manages GNC, which sells vitamins and nutritional supplements, at the plaza.
But four days before Christmas this year, there were all of 20 cars scattered about the acres of asphalt of the main parking lot. The plaza has but five stores. GNC, Donato’s Pizza and the Europa furniture store are clustered at the northeastern end while a Dots clothing store and the Casablanca Market are toward the center.
Nassimi said he’s had some interest from national retailers, but he declined to identify them.
Local retail analyst Chris Boring said an empty strip can hurt the community’s image. "It’s not in anybody’s interest to have a property sit vacant," he said.
But buying a property at a discount can open options because the owner can take more time attracting the right mix of tenants. If the owner paid too much, there might not be enough money for renovations. Boring doesn’t know much about Nassimi, but he thinks the location can work because it’s visible and in a densely populated area.
"The spending power of that neighborhood has not disappeared overnight," Boring said.
Both centers, though, will have a tough time persuading potential shoppers such as Denise Keighley, who was at the Columbus Square Bowling Palace last week. The 54-year-old Westerville resident said she used to shop at Columbus Square all the time but now goes to Easton Town Center and Polaris Fashion Place.
"There’s just nothing there that really appeals to me," she said of Columbus Square. She was there only because her niece wanted to visit Ohio Thrift, a clothing store, after bowling.