The rumor mall

Fact or rumor? The Chico Mall management wants to move in more chain retailers and ease out local mom-and-pop operations.

Normally, we don’t go around printing rumors. But when I started hearing these fears from merchants at the Chico Mall, and even random people off the street, I figured I’d look into it and, I hoped, confirm the rumor or put it to rest.

Perhaps more interesting than what’s going on at any given time in the Chico business community is the sociologically fascinating extent to which people will talk about it, whether it’s rumors of a coffee shop chain moving in at Second and Main streets or Krispy Kreme or Trader Joe’s coming to town. Once in a while, corporate headquarters offers up the answers ("It is a rumor,” says Trader Joe’s press person, succinctly and helpfully. “It’s not on our two-year plan."), but more often they’re vague, snippy or just plain don’t call back. That makes reporters like me feel cynical. And I don’t want to report gossip; I want facts.

He said, she said

Gregory Greenfield & Associates bought the Chico Mall last December. (Sociology lesson No. 1: People fear change.) Carol Sullivan, vice president and regional marketing manager for Jones Lang LaSalle, the leasing agent for the owner, was friendly and polite but has visited Chico only a couple of times and didn’t know how or why the rumor mill was grinding away. “We have no philosophy on [chains over locals]. We are obviously a business, and we look to our tenant mix to be the best that it can be for the clientele that are being served.” So, I asked, trying to pin her down to a simple “yes” or “no,” should the tenants be worried? “We really try to focus on the needs of the customers,” Sullivan responded. “It’s a very stable center at this time and it will continue to grow and evolve.”

I also contacted the mall’s new manager, Dale Bennett, who previously managed the North Valley Plaza mall, to ask him about Sullivan’s comments, or non-comments, but he declined to elaborate on them.

Still, something’s making the storeowners worry. One retailer, who wants to stay in the mall, said, “It’s our whole life.” The previous management, the storeowner said, called them back quicker and was more responsive in general. (Sociology lesson No. 2: People feel hurt when they’re ignored.) “It’s a very tenuous situation, and everyone’s nervous and with good reason. … As each person doesn’t have a chance to renew their lease, that makes everyone down the line more nervous.”

(I think people started getting really freaked out when Calico Goose left after 13 years, saying their lease wasn’t renewed.)

Shades of the ‘old mall’

If I sound skeptical, part of the blame should go toward the mall operators, who rarely say what they’re up to until they command an audience with reporters at some fancy press conference. Case in point: When Cinemark’s Tinseltown theater was being built at NVP, we asked if the Cinemark Movies 10 at the Chico Mall would be shut down. “Don’t be so cynical,” they said. A few months later, bye-bye Movies 10. Same deal with the NVP remodel. Property managers told local merchants to hang in there as they made the “old mall” better, then served them with 30-day eviction notices and catered to the chains on the remodel.

This is why, while everyone is saying there will be an Albertson’s at the new NVP, management won’t confirm it. Because who really believes they won’t then close the Albertson’s across the way on Pillsbury Road?

Sure, the malls are private businesses, but the local owners and employees have a much more personal stake in the community. Be more open and we wouldn’t have to play these silly gossip games. (Sociology lesson No. 3: Silence drives fear.)

My guess: I don’t think any smart mall would systematically evict local tenants in favor of corporate chains. It doesn’t make good business sense.

Time will tell, since no one else will.