AUGUSTA — When the new “for lease” signs went up at the Turnpike Mall several weeks ago, it was a sign of change at the corner of Western Avenue and Whitten Road.

In early 2017, the Augusta Sears store and the Sears Auto Center closed. Later that year, T.J. Maxx moved to a larger space at the Marketplace at Augusta. Since then, the Olympia Sports store also closed, leaving much of the north end of the mall vacant.

While shoppers continue to visit the remaining stores — including Petco and Bed, Bath and Beyond — it has not been clear, at a time when many retail chains are closing stores or going out of business, who would move into the vacant spaces.

Even as the new owners consider their best development options, they will also have to contend with consumers’ new shopping habits.

Christina Williams

For Christina Williams, that means internet shopping. The Randolph resident, out for a walk in Gardiner with her dog Sunday, said she’s looking for convenience and value when she shops, whether at Walmart or online.

Williams is apt to buy household items like pots, pans and dishes online. Online shopping gives her an opportunity to read online reviews, and she doesn’t have to deal with employees who may not have strong customer service skills.

But she wants to be able to try on clothes, and that requires an in-store visit.

“I want to see it and touch it and try it on,” she said.

For John Ney, of Cape Elizabeth, online reviews are not so persuasive.

“People who shop at Brooks Brothers or L.L. Bean are going there because they like the product, and they are generally satisfied with the customer service,” said Ney, who was visiting Gardiner.

There’s no way to tell if a review is genuine, Ney said, and people who leave reviews are generally going to give good reviews.

He said he favors shopping in person for clothes and shoes because you can tell immediately whether they fit properly; returning items ordered online that don’t fit is inconvenient.

“The Turnpike Mall used to be good,” Williams said. “I hope they get something here everyone would want.”

The next chapter for the mall, which was built in 1967, will be written by its new owners.

In May, Sun Equity Partners, LLC, a privately held real estate investment and development firm based in New York, acquired the property after it was placed under the control of Boulos Property Management when its former owner, Taurus Augusta Mall LLC, defaulted on its loan on Feb. 1. The owners said it could no longer pay both its debt service and the cost to operate the mall.

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, Wells Fargo, the trustee acting on behalf of the investors, acknowledged that the mall was worth less than the amount due on the loan, so refinancing was not an option.

In 2010, Taurus Augusta Mall LLC had borrowed $16 million from its original lender. When it defaulted on the note, nearly $14,650,000 was still owed. Property records on file with the city of Augusta show that the mall was valued for property tax purposes at a little more than $19.5 million. When the property changed hands earlier this year, Sun Equity Partners paid about $3.4 million.

Now the new owner is working with Eastern Retail Properties to lease the vacant space.

A brochure for the mall, produced by Eastern Retail Properties, details the space available for rent, including about 71,000 square feet formerly occupied by Sears and nearly 27,000 square feet elsewhere in the mall, and indicates space allocated to a proposed fitness center.

It also identifies two development sites on the northeast corner of the property at the intersection of Whitten Road and Western Avenue that are available for development.

Several requests for interviews to both Sun Equity Partners and Eastern Retail Properties were not returned.

On its website, Eastern Retail Properties lists the Auburn Commerce Center, a new retail development in Auburn; the Maine Coast Mall in Ellsworth; and Houlton Commons in Houlton on its roster of properties. Among its services are land development, project leasing and landlord representation.

Keith Luke, deputy director of development services for the city of Augusta, said the new owners have discussed the improvements they might make.

“There is reason for optimism,” Luke said.

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