ELLSWORTH, Maine — The effects of a recent retail conglomerate buyout will trickle down to Ellsworth in early 2013 when Fashion Bug shutters its Maine Coast Mall store, the latest in a string of closures that have left much of the mall vacant.
Last month Ascena Retail Group Inc. announced the $900 million takeover of Charming Shoppes, which owns Fashion Bug as well as Lane Bryant, Catherine’s Plus Sizes, Cacique and other plus-size women’s apparel shops. Ascena will keep up most of Charming Shoppes’ stores, but announced it would discontinue the lagging Fashion Bug brand. The Ellsworth store is one of several in the state scheduled to close.
Foot traffic already is low in the mall, shopkeepers said Monday, and some are worried it will get even worse after Fashion Bug shuts its doors.
While the mall has seen two new tenants in the past year — TJ Maxx replaced Marden’s when it relocated and Governor’s Restaurant took over a space vacated by a Friendly’s — seven of 13 mall suites will be vacant when Fashion Bug closes its doors.
Mr. Paperback closed after its owners sold the business in February. Also in the past two years, Gold Star Cleaners, the Green Tea restaurant, Hallmark, Maine Pet and Aquarium and hair salon Shear Design all have relocated or gone out of business.
Bar Harbor resident Paul MacQuinn, the mall’s owner, said in February that three national companies and a local restaurant — none of which he would identify — had plans to move into some of those vacant suites. So far, they’re still empty.
“It’s very quiet,” said Ashley Harriman, a cashier at Payless, on Monday.
While it certainly plays a part, the lingering recession may not be the only reason for the mall’s vacancy woes.Though no one would go into detail or offer financial figures, current and former mall tenants have alluded that high rents and “tough financial conditions” for tenants haven’t helped business owners weather the sluggish economy.
“The costs were a little prohibitive [at the mall]; let’s just leave it at that,” said Bob Tapley, office manager of Gold Star Cleaners, which relocated from the mall to a new High Street location about a year and a half ago.
Leona Gagnon and her husband, Randy Walls, purchased the two-screen Maine Coast Cinemas two years ago. Back then, their section of the mall was fully occupied. Now, it’s half-empty.
Though they recently negotiated a year lease they are “fairly happy” with, Gagnon and Walls both said Monday that management plays at least some role in the rush of departures and closings.
“It’s just a very economically challenged time and I would say some adjustments need to be made to keep people in here,” Walls said.
“Management plays a role, absolutely. … When I look around Ellsworth, I see other malls that aren’t empty. So there must be a fundamental difference here,” Gagnon said. “We certainly don’t have the foot traffic anymore.”
Walls and Gagnon said they’re also staring down $120,000 in system conversion costs made necessary by the movie industry’s switch from film to digital. Between those costs and the uncertainty of their lease, Walls said the cinema could be in trouble, too.
“I’m worried, just because of the digital conversion, which is very tough, and not knowing what [the mall] is going to do with the lease,” Walls said. “We’re just hanging on by a thread.”
Neither C.W. Siefken, the mall manager, nor MacQuinn responded to calls for comment about this story.
Follow BDN reporter Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.