Dying Malls Increasingly Rely On Taxpayer Handouts For Survival

America’s dying malls have been a frequent topic of discussion of late as these relics of the 80’s have been forced to convert once valuable high-end retail square footage into grocery stores, libraries and doctor offices just to keep the lights on.  Here’s just a small sampling of the recent carnage:

But, as Bloomberg points out today, one other funding source is increasingly emerging as a key financial sponsor in the efforts of commercial REITs to re-purpose their failing assets: taxpayers.

In Brookfield, Wisconsin, for example, the city is using tax-increment financing (TIF), a common tool for municipalities to subsidize development by putting property taxes from new projects into a fund that pays for building cost, to help rebuild the Brookfield Square Mall. Meanwhile, as if that weren’t enough, the city has also agreed to pay for remediation costs related an old Sears auto repair shop and to build a new convention center and hotel where the Sears once stood.

In this depressing landscape, there is at least one player still willing to take the risk: local governments hungry for tax revenues. Developers incorporating additions such as housing and parks in their plans are turning to public partners to help rehabilitate the aging retail meccas that dot the U.S. Public subsidies have been part of retail development for decades, but with landlords pouring billions of dollars into renovation to battle a wave of store closures, public-private partnerships are more urgent, and more fraught, than ever.


At the Brookfield Square mall in Wisconsin, the landlord, CBL & Associates Properties Inc., needed a new occupant for a fading Sears. CBL had been tinkering with the mix for the past few years. Earlier, in 2008, it completed a 20,000-square-foot expansion, adding grocery stores and restaurants and renovating the interior.


In the end, it found its tenant: the city of Brookfield.


The local government plans to step in to build a conference center and hotel. By creating a hub for small and medium-size conventions on 9 of the 29 acres currently occupied by Sears, the city hopes to boost CBL’s efforts to reinvent the property, the largest taxpayer in Waukesha County. The idea is a greater focus on entertainment, recreation and business, according to Daniel Ertl, director of community development for the city of about 38,000.


“The Sears store is really a shadow of what it used to be,” Ertl said. “We encourage CBL to continue to reinvent themselves. God knows where retail is going to be in 20 years.”


As Bayer Properties CFO, Jami Wadkins, who just secured all sorts of taxpayer-funded handouts to rebuild a failed mall in Alabama, points out, public funding is becoming an “important element of the capital stack of every developer.”

These expansive developments often secure additional public financing through various forms of tax arrangements and incentives, as well as infrastructure spending for things like parking garages. Such funding has become an important element of the capital stack for every developer, according to Jami Wadkins, chief financial officer of Bayer Properties, a real estate company that develops and manages retail real estate.


In Birmingham, Alabama, Bayer worked with the city government to transform the site of the Pizitz, a historic department store that closed in 1987. The Pizitz, which Bayer bought as a vacant building in 2000, was in a rundown neighborhood that lagged behind the revival occurring in other areas of downtown.


Numerous plans ended up on the scrap heap before federal and state aid was secured to build a mixed-use community, which opened in 2016. The development houses 143 residential units — now 90 percent occupied — a co-working space, a food hall and retailers, including Alabama’s first Warby Parker.


The project cost was $70 million, including public and private funds. Bayer was able to obtain a low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as tax credits from the state. The city paid to refurbish the landscaping in the area, including the sidewalks and street lamps, according to Wadkins.


“If you can put a plan together for a city that doesn’t put the city at great risk, then they will invest with you,” Wadkins said. 

To conclude, perhaps no one summarized this lunacy better than Ronald Reagan who succinctly described the Government’s approach to economic affairs as follows:

“Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

Malls are clearly now in the “subsidize it” phase of the Government’s economic plan.

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