BERLIN — A year from now Hobby Lobby should be doing business in the Berlin Mall, and Vermont Bobbin Country Store and The Shoe Department likely won’t be.
Both long-time mall businesses will be displaced under a just-executed “long-term lease” that entitles Hobby Lobby to 49,000 square feet of existing retail space — most of it currently vacant.
Some of it isn’t, and that includes the 4,000-square-foot storefront The Shoe Department has occupied since 1997 and the 4,201 square feet occupied by Vermont Bobbin Country Store — a locally owned business that launched its first shop in the mall in 2007.
The currently occupied contiguous storefronts are part of a package that contemplates Hobby Lobby taking over the north end of the mall that was built in 1987 and lost its last original tenant — a J.C. Penney department store — just more than a year ago.
The vacant J.C. Penney space — just over 34,000 square feet — will anchor a proposed Hobby Lobby that will require an additional 15,000 square feet. That includes two vacant storefronts that bookend The Shoe Department and Vermont Bobbin. One is empty, and sits between what used to be Penney’s and what is still Vermont Bobbin. The other is three doors down and located between The Shoe Department and Berlin Optical Expressions. All four smaller spaces — two of them occupied and two of them empty — have been leased to Hobby Lobby along with the space that was formerly Penney’s to create the new store Ken Simon, vice president of real estate for mall owner Heidenberg Properties Group, said Tuesday, should be under construction in early February.
“This time next year they should be open,” he said of Hobby Lobby, which when work is finished will occupy roughly 25% of the lease-able space in the main mall building, which doesn’t include a free-standing 55,000-square-foot Kohl’s department store, under construction on the mall campus six years ago and opened in 2016.
The main mall includes roughly 194,000 square feet of retail space and Walmart leases more than 93,500 square feet of it — more if you count a vacant storefront it seasonally uses for storage. Hobby Lobby’s introduction at the opposite end of the mall will provide a second anchor to a complex that had three — Rich’s, Magram’s and J.C. Penney — when it opened nearly 35 years ago.
All three department stores have since closed — two of them long before Heidenberg Properties Group purchased the mall more than a decade ago with an eye toward revitalizing it.
Simon said Tuesday the addition of one of Hobby Lobby’s sizable stores, which sell everything from arts and crafts to home décor, is another step in that direction.
“I think it’s good for the mall,” Simon said. “I hope the customers think it’s good for the mall, but we think it’s good for the mall, otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
“We’ve always tried … from the time we bought it to improve the mall and to improve the tenant mix and to give the customers in our market a broader assortment of goods and services,” he added, noting the mall’s pivotal role in Berlin’s “new town center” and the addition of residential opportunities, like soon-to-open Chestnut Place.
Simon pointed to the 98 units of senior housing — a mix of independent and assisted living — that is nearing completion and expected to welcome its first residents early next year as an example of the mall’s out-of-the-box thinking with respect to its 62-acre campus. He also noted the local permitting process for Fox Run — a 30-unit affordable housing project — as well as what would be central Vermont’s first stand-alone Starbucks, is about to begin.
“The whole nature of the mall is going to change in the next year,” Simon predicted. “Between Hobby Lobby and Chestnut Place and, presumably Fox Run and Starbucks, and some other things that we’re doing, hopefully it (the mall) is going to be a better place by this time next year.”
It doesn’t sound like that place will include The Shoe Department or Vermont Bobbin Country Store.
Asked about those two tenants, Simon offered a cryptic response.
“We’re talking to them about their future location,” he said.
Asked if that meant a possible move within the mall Simon didn’t indicate that was an option.
“We’re talking to them about their future location,” he said, suggesting it isn’t clear how much space will be available when Hobby Lobby opens.
The manager of The Shoe Department said she was still processing the news and deferred comment to the company’s corporate headquarters. The woman who answered the phone at Vermont Bobbin was in a similar position and referred questions to owner Andy Ibey.
Attempts to reach Ibey and get a response from The Shoe Department’s headquarters were unsuccessful on Tuesday, and Ibey didn’t respond to a message left on his voicemail before press time.
Mall Manager Kay Nuissl spoke as if both businesses would be leaving.
“I hate to lose them,” she said. “They’re part of the family here.”
Simon said Hobby Lobby will be a big addition to the mall and the long-term lease was the product of months-long conversations that appear to have paved the way for the 900-store company’s return to Vermont.
Since Hobby Lobby closed its Rutland store two years ago Vermont has been one of three states that don’t have at least one of the family-owned outlets.
The addition of a major arts and crafts business at the mall fills a void created nearly a decade ago when JoAnn Fabric and Crafts moved from space now occupied by Planet Fitness to the Vermont Shopping Center on the Barre-Montpelier Road.