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Marion mall businesses closing in December; bigger stores at Illinois Centre remain for now

  • David Norris and Karen Sherrard enter the Illinois Centre Mall on Sunday afternoon, two of only a handful of shoppers at the nearly empty facility.

    David Norris and Karen Sherrard enter the Illinois Centre Mall on Sunday afternoon, two of only a handful of shoppers at the nearly empty facility.
    Holly Kee photo

  • What was once a bustling shopping mecca in the "Hub of the Universe" was nearly deserted on Sunday afternoon.

    What was once a bustling shopping mecca in the "Hub of the Universe" was nearly deserted on Sunday afternoon.
    Holly Kee photo

By Holly Kee
updated: 12/5/2018 1:12 PM

MARION -- For some remaining businesses in Marion's Illinois Centre Mall, last Friday was Black Friday.

That was the day they each received a letter, saying the mall would be closing in 30 days.

At least four businesses, Target, Dillard's, Pirate Pete's, and Mantracon, will remain open for the time being, since they are privately owned and own the space in which they reside.

But for everybody else, the word that the mall is closing was disappointing, if not entirely surprising.

"We received our letter on Friday," said Nathan Sapp, manager of GNC. He said the letter gave a number to call for questions, but that number is the mall office.

"They don't answer when you call," he said. "It goes straight to voicemail." He added that the "emergency" extension goes to the security guard who "knows nothing."

This newspaper placed a the mall's corporate headquarters on Monday but as of press time the call had not been returned.

For GNC, the closure is nearly a moot point. Sapp said they were planning to move out in January anyway, and will relocate to the old AT&T building next to Walmart.

Unlike other retailers, the Christmas shopping season is not a huge boon for GNC.

"We do more sales in January and February," said Sapp, "with people looking for supplements when getting back in to the gym." He said his worst-case scenario is having to close the business for a couple of weeks as they move stock to the new store.

According to Williamson County Commissioner Brent Gentry, not all of the businesses got letters.

"I know nothing officially," stressed Gentry, "but this has the appearance of targeting only those businesses located inside the mall, but not the businesses that have direct access to an outside entrance."

Gentry said he worries that "everyone will think everything is shutting down."

Right now, at least two businesses have not received notice to vacate by the Dec. 16 date on the letter, Fujiyama and Fox's Flowers and Gifts.

Gentry is a close personal friend with the owner of Fujiyama, who is currently out of the country. He confirmed that as of 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, the restaurant received no letter.

Still, he said that the restaurant owner has been already planning to relocate.

"I'm working on the details for the property now," said Gentry. "The plans are to build a stand-alone building in Marion." Construction is expected to begin in the spring.

Fujiyama also has a location in Carbondale and is also locating in Mt. Vernon.

Fox's Flowers and Gifts owner, Teresa Savat, confirmed that as of noon on Monday, she had not received a letter to vacate. Savat bought the business about five years ago.

"This business has been in Marion for over 87 years," she said, adding that it's been located in the mall for about the last 10 of those years.

Savat said the mall manager came into her business on Friday morning and said he had letters and a paper to be signed.

"Then he looked and said, 'Oh, you guys don't have a letter" and just walked out."

Savat said she originally found out about the letters from a friend who saw a Facebook post from a Du Quoin radio station.

"They put it up that the Marion mall would cease in 30 days," she said.

That left her and her employees upset.

"We were all in tears," she said. "This is a nightmare. My employees are just devastated. They're scared they're going to lose their jobs."

Savat has five part-time employees.

She is also angry because of the timing of the letters.

"Why right before Christmas?" she asked. "That is the busiest for retail places. It's when they make their money to get through the year."

That sentiment was shared by Marion Mayor Anthony Rinella, who said he learned of the letters from a news source while deer hunting on Saturday.

"It's heartless," he said. "It's not good any time of year, but especially around Christmas and the holidays when people are depending on a paycheck to buy presents for their kids. It's just not a good deal."

Rinella said the city has had no official notification from the mall owners, but isn't necessarily surprised by that.

"We're in bankruptcy litigation with them," he said. "They're not going to talk to us."

Savat said that while news exposure of the closings might draw in shoppers hoping for a bargain, that will mean little if businesses are forced to move during the busiest shopping season of the year.

"We'd have to close to move," she said, noting large coolers and a computer system as well as inventory that would have to be relocated.

"You're also looking at having to come up with moving expenses, a deposit and your first month's rent, all of that, all of a sudden, boom. That's hard on a small business."

Savat also said that when she initially bought the business, the mall management made it seem that the mall would be changing.

"They said they had big businesses coming in that would employ 50 to 100 people," she said.

The Shoe Sensation manager confirmed that a letter had been received but referred all questions to the corporate office.

Fewer than a dozen people filtered through the mall on Sunday afternoon, a far cry from the hoards of shoppers that once filled the popular shopping location.

David Norris was one of those.

"I believe they'll tear it down," he said. "They've let it go too far."

Norris said he believes part of the problem has been a lack of a steady owner.

Karen Sherrard echoed Norris' opinion.

"Back in 1997, I was looking at buying a business and moving it from the Carbondale mall to here," she said. "At that time, this mall had more sales than Carbondale did. They just haven't kept it up."

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