Cranberry comp plan eyes ways to maintain mall space

Cranberry Township has some ideas on how to revitalize the Cranberry Mall if the number of tenants continues to decline.

In the meantime, however, township officials are hoping to work with mall management to revitalize business there.

On Oct. 15, 1980, ground was broken amid much pomp and circumstance at the site along Route 322 that would become the Cranberry Mall.

“Today marks a milestone for Venango County, northwest Pennsylvania and adjoining communities,” said Johnstown developer George D. Zamias in a news report from that day.

At the time, Zamias said the $12 million complex would create lasting jobs and pump $35 million into the local economy each year. Four department anchor stores were planned and the mall promised space for 55 to 65 stores inside.

Fast forward 36 years, and about 20 stores remain within the mall, excluding the food court and retailers around its perimeter. Earlier this year the mall lost two of its long-lived retail outlets – Hallmark and J.C. Penney.

Cranberry Township officials, recognizing the waning business at the mall, have offered some solutions for maintaining the space within the pages of the township’s comprehensive plan. Officials have been working on the drafting of that plan for months and it is now on the desk of Cranberry Township supervisors awaiting their approval.

Malls everywhere are struggling, the plan said, but it is within the township’s best interests to work with mall management to help revitalize the space there. Cranberry’s retail trade pulls money into the township and officials want to avoid having to deal with a large blighted space.

No current figures were available on how much money the mall brings in to the township. However, the comprehensive plan draft noted that 87 retail businesses within Cranberry’s center and a four-mile radius around it net nearly $150 million annually.

Retail businesses do draw money into Cranberry but they don’t keep it here like other types of industry, the plan said.

One of the township’s major objectives within the comp plan is dealing with and the avoidance of blight. To that end, officials are looking toward “adaptive re-use” of spaces to avoid them becoming abandoned and decayed, said Koah Pentz, Cranberry Township’s coding enforcement and zoning officer.

“Adaptive re-use” is a zoning term that refers to a building being used for something other than what it was originally intended, such as a factory being turned into an art gallery. For a variety of reasons, it is easier to re-use old buildings and tailor them for a new purpose than to rebuild from scratch, Pentz said.

The mall space lends itself easily to something like a technical college, Pentz said.

Terry Ray, a member of Cranberry Township’s comprehensive plan steering committee, additionally suggested that the mall could easily house something like doctors’ offices, a museum or a flea market.

The mall is private property and its owner lives in California, Pentz said. On the Venango County parcel viewer, the owner is listed as SSR LLC. For the time being, the township’s hands are tied in adapting the mall space for anything other than what it already is. If the mall is forced to close in the future, however, it will be easier to redevelop if the township already has a plan in place, the comp plan said.

Comp plan language makes it clear that the township is not hoping for the mall’s closure. Instead, it would be better for all if the mall were to survive and thrive, the plan stated. Pentz went on to note that much of the discussion about the comp plan’s vision for the mall remains hypothetical until township supervisors actually sign off on it.

In the meantime, Ray, who helped form the language in the comprehensive plan as a steering committee member and who has lived in Cranberry all his life, said both the township and mall management could do more to promote the mall.

“We (Cranberry Township) should be promoting the mall all over the place,” Ray said.

Mall managers, for their part, should do more for its upkeep and make sure that rental rates are reasonable, Ray said.

Jeff Clark, the assistant property manager at the mall, said the mall is always courting new business. Just this week mall management showed storefronts to two potential renters, he said.

“We’re always looking and working with people,” Clark said.

Additionally, the mall’s California owner is trying to entice businesses from out west to come and rent space in the mall, Clark said.

Harking back to the mall’s heyday, Ray said, “For a while the place was doing wonderful.” It was busy and difficult to find parking within short walking distance of an entrance, he said.

Ray went on to say that he remembers when Cranberry Elementary School stood on the grounds where the mall does today. That school housed grades one through six and Ray was a student there.

Even before that, the parcel of land where the mall stands was rural and surrounded by farmland and was known to be particularly good for pheasant-hunting, Ray said.