THE MERRYMEETING PLAZA at Cook’s Corner in Brunswick.

THE MERRYMEETING PLAZA at Cook’s Corner in Brunswick.

BRUNSWICK-TOPSHAM

It’s a tale of two cities when it comes to shopping centers in Topsham and Brunswick.

Full storefronts, backed-up traffic and filled parking spaces characterize any given day at the Topsham Fair Mall. Conversely, at Cook’s Corner and Merrymeeting Plaza, functioning businesses huddle together as large swaths of empty retail space sit dormant.

Some of those vacancies occurred after a recent spate of stores left Cook’s Corner bound for greener pasture at the Topsham Fair Mall.

Among those who left Merrymeeting Plaza was Day’s Jewelers, now housed in the Topsham Fair Mall.

“We hated to leave,” Day’s coowner Jeff Corey said. “I believe we opened that store in 1996, and it’s been a very good store for us. But we lost most of our neighbors, which resulted in a significant decline in traffic to the store.”

Corey said that his lease was due to expire, and so the decision to move was made.

“Our business is up 25 to 26 percent over last year,” Corey said, comparing new figures to the last year the store was at Merrymeeting Plaza.

The lease agreement in Topsham was in the same price range as what he was paying in Brunswick, Corey said, but business never recovered after the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station in 2011.

“(Merrymeeting is) a nice center,” he said. “It’s well-built and we did very well in that center. But, of course, when you move that many people away, it just was no longer a destination.

“I remember at Christmastime, getting out of that center was a nightmare,” Corey said. “We didn’t see that over the last couple years — that jam during the Christmas season. It’s a critical season for us and so that did present a problem.”

Shoe retailer Lamey Wellehan left its small Cook’s Corner space for the Topsham Fair Mall in January — a move Operations Manager Don Stowell said they didn’t want to make.

Stowell said the Mainebased company just couldn’t come to terms with property owners DDR for a new lease, which he called mystifying considering the number of vacancies at Cook’s Corner.

DDR has since put their entire Cook’s Corner holdings on the market for an undisclosed amount.

“Moving wasn’t our first choice, but it’s turned out to be a good choice, Stowell said.

Stowell said business had been a little more quiet his last two years at Cook’s Corner, but the store was still gaining in sales a couple percent points a year and growing.

“We weren’t struggling, and given the choice of staying with a lease we were comfortable with versus the expense of moving, we would have stayed. But it didn’t happen that way,” Stowell said. “Although watching people leave those two shopping centers at Cook’s Corner is certainly concerning as we were still there but business was holding up pretty well so that wasn’t the immediate driving force.”

The problem could simply be one of local-versus-national branding.

Stowell said that, over the years, the company has evolved from setting up in whatever malls Maine had to slowly gearing away from malls as they become more nationally oriented.

DDR’s own ranking of top performing stores confirms this, placing companies like T.J. Maxx, PetSmart, Kohl’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods as high indicators of profit. No local or regional companies were listed as performance indicators.

Despite not having a national profile, Stowell said the company’s local brand has kept them around.

“We’ve become — I hesitate to use the word ‘destination’ — but people seem to find us and we’ve been around a long time so they know where we are,” Stowell said.

It’s always concerning to a retailer whether their customers will follow them to a new location or not.

“I won’t say the sales are that much more but for something that we were forced to do — that we didn’t have a choice to do, it’s worked out very well and we’ve come out ahead. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve got Renys right next door to us and they’re a tremendously strong, local merchant,” Stowell said.

Stowell has noticed a big difference going from a larger property company to more local landlords. He said that as larger, out-of-state companies are working on reaching their goals nationally, “they don’t quite see what’s happening on the sidewalks the way you do if you live here.”

Linda Smith, Brunswick’s business development manager, pointed to the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and to the larger national trend of dying shopping malls as the main contributing factors of Cook’s Corner’s losses.

With the exodus of companies from Brunswick to Topsham and choosing Topsham’s mall over Brunswick’s malls, Topsham Economic and Community Development Director John Shattuck underlined that it is not a contest between the two towns.

From a public policy standpoint, Shattuck said he is doubtful there is enough retail in the area to support both malls.

“This impacts us all in a region,” Shattuck said. With the rise of Internet sales decreasing the need for as much brick and mortar, “If there’s going to be less demand for retail space, I think people are starting to slowly adjust to the implications of that.”

Jim Howard of Priority Real Estate Group has invested both in the Cook’s Corner area and in property at the former base.

Howard said one of Cook’s Corner’s challenges is that it isn’t an easy place to navigate.

The problem, he said, isn’t that there is too much traffic, but that there needs to be more access roads. Howard has advocated for one such road connecting Gurnet Road to Walmart, allowing people to get around Cook’s Corner quickly and safely.

Brunswick officials have been more open-minded about building roads, Howard believes, but says they also face limited resources. He’s been to dozens and dozens of meetings to talk about what needs to happen to revive and bring life back to Cook’s Corner.

Investment was made in Topsham in roads, which wasn’t without its controversies, “but today we’re reaping the benefits,” Howard said.

Brunswick, however, has been a different story.

“I don’t feel that we’ve made enough progress in uniting enough people to solve the problem,” Howard said. “And it’s frustrating, because we’ve worked the last 36 months to try to facilitate some improvements.”

Had those improvements come to fruition as a sign of the community’s willingness to invest, “we’d have some people stepping up,” Howard said.

One of the reasons Priority Real Estate Group built Coastal Ortho on Thomas Point Road — rather than on the former base — was so it could serve as the first project there to facilitate more growth at Cook’s Corner.

Coastal Ortho opened in 2011. Currently, no new buildings can be built on Thomas Point Road because the Maine Department of Transportation will not grant a permit until the traffic problems are solved there, Howard said.

Former Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown said a plan was devised to create an access road that nearly mirrored Monument Place in Topsham. It would have been funded through big box impact fees, a tax increment financing district and some other funds. As a result, there would be no impact to taxpayers.

At the time, Brown said there was a sense of expectancy that the town of Brunswick get proactive, “or what you’re experiencing today was going to happen and that was really the motivating force behind the discussions we had to get that road built.”

“It was pretty clear that without that road getting built, that that area out there was going to stagnate,” Brown said.

Brunswick Town Councilor David Watson said work to revitalize Cook’s Corner is in limbo, “and that’s the tragedy.”

“There’s been a lot of discussion; a lot of what I would call movement and trying to do things,” Watson said. “Needless to say there’s only certain things that a municipality can do.”

The function of government is not to develop businesses or create jobs, but to create the environment so this investment can take place, he said.

Now, the Cook’s Corner shopping center is up for auction, including several properties outside the mall from Five Guys on Bath Road to Regal Cinemas on Gurnet Road.

Watson said he wants whoever acquires the shopping center to be communityfriendly and wants to see the town grow.

“I think we have some tremendous opportunities,” Watson said.

Shopping centers around the country are on the decline. As for what that means for Cook’s Corner, Watson said: “To be honest, I don’t know but I and I’m sure the town wants to work with the developers and the business people in the Cook’s Corner area to make a positive situation for the citizens of the town. Cook’s Corner is that vital to the town of Brunswick.”

And vital due to the tax revenue alone. DDR has a total taxable value of $15.86 million according to the town’s 2015-16 real estate taxes listing, and pays a total of $853,942 in taxes. WS Development was levied $309,456 in taxes for Merrymeeting Plaza.

“I think Brunswick is at a crossroads,” Watson said, and there may be hard times ahead, but he has no question Cook’s Corner will come back. “I think we need to stop and think as a team, make a decision on where we need to go and why we want to go there. I can tell you that if we take the right path, in the long run, Brunswick will be doing incredible.”

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About the series

THE TIMES RECORD is presenting a four-part series taking a closer look at activity at two malls at Cook’s Corner in Brunswick and the Topsham Fair Mall, and discussing the successes and challenges each face and what the future may hold in an ever-changing retail market.

Tuesday: An overview of Brunswick’s two malls and Topsham Fair Mall

Wednesday: The recent success of Topsham Fair Mall

TODAY: The challenges facing the Cook’s Corner and Merrymeeting Plaza malls

Friday: An eye to the future and discussing potential opportunities that await Brunswick’s malls


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