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Local tourism official wins award

Reporter: Mtairynews

 Local tourism official wins award

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Lisa Ring has stuck with Mayberry Mall in Mount Airy through thick and thin — keeping her Hallmark store there open even as the mall literally was crumbling and causing all but a handful of merchants to bail. She maintained Hallmark’s presence as a South Carolina real estate firm bought the then-50-year-old shopping center in early 2019 — effectively rescuing it from forced demolition by local government officials after the former owner neglected repairs, making conditions unsafe. Calling the acquisition by WRS Inc.

“a blessing” at that time, Ring saw hope for the future as the company launched a major renovation project that signaled the kind of storybook ending often associated with the Hallmark name — until it didn’t. After surviving the ordeals of recent years, Ring will not be resting on any laurels and deservedly taking her business to the next level — but closing it instead sometime later this month. “It was my dream — I put every penny I made back in the business.” Ring said of how she built up the store over time. “This store has been here over 40 years,” she said recently regarding a fixture at the mall on U.S.

52-North which itself had opened soon before in the late 1960s. “And I have owned it for 15.” The reason for the closing is not the usual suspect where businesses are concerned — lack of profits — but a complicated series of events surrounding the space she leases at the mall from WRS Inc. for her 4,500-square-foot Hallmark store. “The economy isn’t great, but that’s not why I’m closing,” Ring said. It boils down to the business owner being told she must sign a new lease that would mean forking out more than $81,000 per year for that space — about double the present cost. Coupled with this problem is a failed, 20-year-old HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system at her store which recently has meant hot conditions in the summer and cold ones in winter. WRS was willing to replace the HVAC components at an estimated expense of $18,000 — but only if she signed the new, long-term (three-to-five-year) lease at the much higher cost, according to Ring. “They will fix it if I pay that kind of rent,” she related.

“They won’t do anything for me until I pay full rent.” Yet Ring can’t justify coughing up that sum since the mall still has only a few occupants, not generating enough customers to cover such a hike. This relates to how the success of a mall depends on some extent to the ability to draw steady and diverse customer traffic through the power of stores’ collective presence. Ring said the Hallmark outlet certainly does its part in this way.

“I bring people to Mount Airy.” Other spaces kept cozy Ironically, heating and air conditioning is not a problem elsewhere in the mall, where store spots await new occupants. “They have got spaces sitting here empty that’s got heat and air and mine don’t,” Ring said of the Hallmark store where three infrared heaters have been pressed into service in an effort to keep it warm. “They told me I could send them a counter-offer,” the veteran businesswoman said of her negotiations with WRS personnel, “which was rejected immediately.” Ring also questioned the timing of the lease ultimatum that she believes was a leveraging move to force a quick decision — coming during the advent of the holiday season.

“They waited until I got my store filled with Christmas merchandise,” including an array of cards, ornaments and gift items. Asset Manager Frank Peters at WRS — whom Ring has dealt with during the process — did not respond to a voice-mail message left Friday at his office seeking the firm’s response to the Hallmark matter.

Peters also was invited to submit an email statement as an option, which hasn’t occurred. Meanwhile, Lisa Ring is left wondering how the situation reached this point after everything else that has happened. “It’s a shame,” she said of the closing that puts into question the fate of the eight-person Hallmark staff, which includes Ring — “as much as we have fought and put up with” since Mayberry Mall began deteriorating. “It’s been nothing but a battle for six years,” the store operator continued in reference to the series of problems there. “And it’s a losing battle.” Blames herself Lisa Ring concedes that part of the blame for the difficulties rests with her. Before the recent impasse, the Hallmark store had been operating on a temporary lease that went into effect when Mayberry Mall was sold to WRS, which seemed reasonable on its face. “I was so excited — I was gullible,” she now admits. The rent cost under the temporary lease was 10% of her sales, the going rate for such temporary arrangements, according to Ring.

The longtime business owner had the understanding she would not be charged a full rate until the mall was about 75% full of stores. She further was led to believe WRS would take care of the HVAC upgrade. “But since I’m in a temporary lease, legally they don’t have to,” advised Ring, who says she should’ve paid more attention to its fine print and had provisions included which weren’t. “This is all my fault for not paying attention to my lease.” Now Ring says she basically has no legal leg to stand on in butting heads with the South Carolina corporation that owns shopping centers in multiple states throughout the region. “It’s kind of David and Goliath.” Future uncertain A casual observer might suggest that Ring should just move her Hallmark store to another high-traffic location — but such an option is not as simple as it sounds. Under guidelines imposed by the Hallmark chain in order for outlets to benefit from its highly marketable name, this would require upfitting another building with new fixtures to the tune of $30,000 in order to meet its specifications. Ring said she is working with downtown property owner Gene Rees and Main Street Coordinator Lizzie Morrison about a possible new store site in Mount Airy’s central business district, and local businessman Bill Juno, who owns shopping center space locally. “It would not be a Hallmark store,” Ring said of the requirements involved for a full-fledged operation.

The only other option is to open a Hallmark Express outlet offering only limited merchandise such as cards. While Ring is uncertain about her future in the local business community, she seems even more mystified by the circumstances leading to the present predicament. “I wake up in the middle of the night and I just can’t believe it,” she said, while offering one possible explanation: “It’s greed.”

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