Why a Rochester man is buying up empty space in dying malls, including Great Northern

Clay, N.Y. — The Great Northern Mall in Clay has been struggling for years. It

Clay, N.Y. — The Great Northern Mall in Clay has been struggling for years. It lost its last anchor, Dick’s Sporting Goods, in July, so any new activity is notable.

In recent months, workers have been seen going in and out of the old Bon-Ton store. And over the last few weeks, a metal fence has gone up in a large section of the parking lot outside the store.

That’s why syracuse.com | Post-Standard readers asked us what’s up with the long-vacant Bon-Ton Department Store on the north side of the mall.

So we checked into it, and we learned a Rochester business man has figured out a use for empty department stores inside dying malls throughout the country.

Ted Filer bought the old Bon-Ton store in July 2020 for $650,000. Since 2018, Filer has been buying vacant stores — including former Bon-Tons, Kmarts, Sears and Macy’s — in malls all over the country and turning them into self-storage facilities.

Reached by phone, Filer wouldn’t say how many vacant stores he has bought, citing the need to keep the information confidential in a the highly competitive self-storage market. But he said he has self-storage facilities currently under construction in 10 cities around the country. The old Bon-Ton store at Great Northern is one of them, he said.

Filer has formed a company, Mustard Street Management, to operate the facilities. The name comes from his first project, an old French’s Mustard factory on Mustard Street in Rochester that he turned into a mix of self-storage and manufacturing space.

He said mall owners are sometimes reluctant at first to sell their vacant big box stores to him because they still have hopes for “retail revivals,” but eventually see the light.

“Eventually I think everybody comes around to the fact that vacant buildings are an eyesore,“ he said. “Though self-storage doesn’t generate the traffic in terms of employment or customers, it is a viable business. The building will never suffer vacancy, burned out lightbulbs, broken curbstones or smashed glass. That will never be the case with the Bon-Ton space again, and it had all of those a year ago.”

Two workers prepare the Addis & Dey’s store for its grand opening at Great Northern Mall in Clay on July 25, 1989. It later became a Bon-Ton store. (Ellen Blalock | syracuse.com)

The Bon-Ton store opened in 1989 as Addis & Dey’s. It closed in 2006, becoming among the first of many retailers to abandon the northern Onondaga County mall in the face of competition from Destiny USA, a much bigger mall 10 miles away in Syracuse.

The store has been empty ever since. Despite its size, the former department store had been forgotten space for the few shoppers who still frequent Great Northern. And, it turns out, the same was true for the mall’s owner, Mike Kohan, a Long Island-based buyer of distressed retail properties who acquired the mall at an auction in 2017 for $8.5 million.

Filer said Kohan “didn’t know he owned this building because the (previous) mall owners had removed it from their map on their website so that it didn’t look like a vacant space back when the mall was still fairly vibrant.”

“When I call him and asked if he wanted to sell it to me, he’s like, ‘I’d love to, but I don’t own it,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, you do,’ ” he said.

The self-storage has been growing in the U.S., due mainly to urbanization. Renters needing a place to store their belongings when their rental spaces shrink are increasingly turning to self-storage units. The trend has only increased during the coronavirus pandemic, as Americans have been forced to find a place to store some of their furnishings so they can create home offices.

And self-storage operators have increasingly turned to vacant mall spaces, which provide a ready-made, climate-controlled setting for storage units. U-Haul brought the former Seneca Mall on Route 57 in Clay in 2018 and has turned it into an indoor self-storage facility.

Filer said he hopes to open a self-storage facility at the former Bon-Ton store in Great Northern Mall in six to eight weeks. The work is about three or four months behind schedule because of supply chain interruptions and labor shortages caused by the pandemic, he said.

Bon-Ton self storage Great Northern Mall

Rochester businessman Ted Filer is building a self-storage facility in the long-vacant former Bon-Ton store at Great Northern Mall in Clay. (Rick Moriarty | [email protected])

At 100,000 square feet, the former Bon-Ton store has plenty of room for storage — about 850 storage units to be exact. Half will be installed initially. After those are filled, the rest will be built, Filer said. It likely will take a few years to fill the entire space, he said.

“You’ll be able to drive right in,” he said. “You’ll unload and load your car inside the building, so you’re out of the rain, out of the snow, out of the heat, whatever. The ceiling heights are set up so you can drive a full-size moving truck inside.”

The facility will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Customers will gain entry via an app on their cell phones.

In addition to storage inside the building, the facility will have 200 parking spaces outside for storing boats and RVs. The fence that went up recently will restrict access to that area to customers, also via an app, Filer said.

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