Friday, June 13, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The owners of the Tropicana Center strip mall have either $61 million to burn or a secret plan.
The mystery businessmen bought the shopping center for many millions nearly three years ago and since then have all but encouraged businesses to leave.
Leases generally aren’t being renewed, the trees in the parking lot have been cut down and most nights the lights in the parking lot don’t work.
Not that there are a lot of cars to illuminate.
The plaza, which spans the south side of Tropicana Avenue from McLeod Drive to Pecos Road, is something of a ghost mall with more than half of the storefronts empty and scarred by old signs. The biggest clump of cars belongs to construction workers — they’re parked outside the 120,000-square-foot Wal-Mart, which is closed for remodeling. Trash swirls in the wind, suggesting tumbleweeds and a lonesome yet tuneful coyote.
Too bad even Sheplers Western Wear is gone, leaving behind only its parking lot decorations: concrete wagon wheels.
Dan Riggs owns a fish store, the Trop-Aquarium, and has been there for 15 years. These days, this is the view from his door: a slot bar that’s surviving (they usually do); a closed jewelry store that lost its lease; a closed restaurant that lost its lease, its door taped shut with a constable’s notice; and a Payless shoe store that Riggs thinks is losing its lease (neither the store nor Payless corporate would comment to the Sun). Thanks to the lack of cars, they’re all easy for Riggs to see.
“It’s been a dead center now for three years,” Riggs said. “They haven’t tried to do anything for at least that long.”
More than anything, he would like some answers from the owners who “killed” his business.
It’s one thing when the economy wipes out stores, but what’s with owners who seem to be wrecking their own shopping center?
They won’t say, not to their tenants and not to us. The owners of Tropicana Center have ignored a month’s worth of phone calls from the Sun.
So, who are they?
The deed says Tropec LLC. But if you look at an SEC filing from when it took out a $56 million loan to buy the shopping center in 2005, two names appear, Arman and Mark Gabay. The Beverly Hills, Calif., businessmen have a combined net worth of $432.5 million and hold 54 properties, the loan prospectus notes.
On this particular property, 30 out of 48 storefronts are empty. And it can’t be just the economy. Other stores along the street seem to be doing just fine.
The difference, Riggs said, is that Tropec doesn’t seem to want any businesses. If it did, would it be so hard to renew a lease? Take the jewelry store with the tattered banner.
It used to be Gabriel Jewelers. Owner Gabriel de Leon said he couldn’t find out how to renew his lease, despite calling and writing letters.
“They didn’t tell me if they wanted us to renew, if they didn’t, or what,” de Leon said. “Basically, we just got fed up.”
So after 16 years there, he upped and moved to a new location near Eastern and Serene avenues.
Riggs watched what happened with the jeweler and renewed his lease by carefully reading the terms of his old lease. He found a three-month window when he could renew the lease without the owner’s approval, if he acted a year ahead of time. He has been congratulating himself ever since.
If only there were more customers.
And less trash and disrepair.
Melody Jensen, a cashier at Savers thrift store, has worked in this mall for 11 years and can’t believe what’s happened.
“It’s filthy,” she said. “They don’t care about it. At least when Wal-Mart was here, we had security.”
The responsibility for cleaning and upkeep would belong to “Edwin,” the property manager.
He returned a call from the Sun and left a message saying it would be easier to reach him by e-mail. He didn’t answer the e-mail or return subsequent calls.
There have been Edwin spottings at the mall.
Julianna Nagy said he stopped by her Kiss’s Salon & Spa after she asked him about the trash, the dirty sidewalks and the leaking roof. She said Edwin makes assurances but nothing has happened.
Her salon is south of the former Sheplers. It’s in a stretch of seven storefronts, four of which are empty. Across the way, she can see the gutted Wal-Mart, which, back in the day, generated foot traffic for her place.
These days, though, what stylist would want to rent a chair at her spa? Yeah, right.
Nagy says she’s grateful for two things: regular customers from the old days and a lease that runs through 2011.
“We’re just really desperate to find out what’s going on,” Nagy said.
The only good bit of news we can offer Nagy is that the Wal-Mart is set to reopen with a grocery store and a pharmacy, according to a corporate spokeswoman. It should be open and bringing people to the mall in October.
“Really?” Nagy said. “Last they told me, it was September. Before that, August.”