Vic Sockrider knows a few improvements would help his struggling bowling alley attract more customers. In fact, he admits, the entire shopping center could use a good facelift.
But the challenges confronting businesses in the Quimby Village strip mall on Bluffton Road near Broadway aren't likely to go away any time soon – even if the economy improves – because of a protracted legal battle involving the long-vacant theater that is the center's largest tenant.
Ironically, the old Clyde Theater was supposed to be the centerpiece of a Quimby renaissance. It was less than six years ago that local businessman Indalecio Diaz de Leon announced plans to convert what in 1950 was one of the nation's first, largest and most beautiful shopping-center movie houses into a Hispanic nightclub and restaurant. DeLeon, who was buying the property on contract from the local Mallers-Spirou movie chain for $300,000, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remove the seats, level the sloped floor and make other improvements, but work was stopped for lack of proper permits and de Leon never quite got around to finishing the project.
In fact, according to Allen Superior Court documents, he never quite got around to fulfilling the terms of his purchase contract, either. Even after Mallers-Spirou's interest was purchased by Liddell Investments four years ago, de Leon failed to make payments, and in 2009 he was ordered to pay Liddell about $208,000 in damages.
But de Leon never came through, and Liddell – which had paid thousands of dollars in overdue taxes and shopping-center assessments – lacked either the cash or desire to follow through on its subsequent plan to turn the theater into an under-21 club. “We didn't realize de Leon owed so much money. It would take up to $400,000 to finish (renovations),” said Liddell spokesman Todd Smith.
So there it sits, a faded “streamline”-style cinematic palace that, since its closure in 1994, has instead decayed into an abandoned eyesore. But the theater's negative impact on Sockrider and other tenants transcends aesthetics.
“The way the shopping center was set up, square footage determines the owners' assessment (for maintenance and other common expenses,” explained Sockrider, co-owner of the 26-lane Village Bowl that accounts for about 30 percent of the shopping center's space – resulting in annual expenses of about $17,000.
But the theater accounts for nearly 40 percent of the space, and remains far behind in its assessments, Sockrider said. The shortfall has forced the center to cut back drastically on maintenance, security, snow removal and other expenses, and makes it impossible to pay for new lights, storefronts and other upgrades that would make the area more attractive to would-be tenants.
“(The shopping-center association) has liens on the property, and we've talked to the city about trying to get some help. We're struggling to pay our bills as they come in. This is a real ‘Catch-22' situation,” he said.
It's easy to blame de Leon and Liddell, of course. But court documents reveal de Leon blamed a divorce and other factors for his failure to pay. And Liddell, which owns the Marketplace of Canterbury shopping center that includes the Piere's Entertainment Center, has financial troubles, too: According to Allen County Treasurer Sue Orth, the company owes more than $176,000 in property taxes on the Canterbury center.
But if de Leon and Liddell aren't villains, there are nevertheless real victims here: Sockrider and other merchants who are doing their best to serve an attractive but underserved part of town.
On Oct. 14, 2009, Liddell paid $23,236 in overdue property taxes – just in time to keep the theater out of the county's sale of tax-delinquent properties. But Orth said the theater's taxes are once again overdue, to an amount of nearly $26,000. As a result, the theater is eligible for this year's still-unscheduled tax sale – unless Liddell submits another last-minute payment. But if the company has no imminent plans for the property, the best thing might simply be to walk away, cut its losses and let someone else buy the property at tax sale.
“It's unfortunate that the theater is such a large vacancy that it isn't good for the rest of the shopping center,” said commercial real estate agent Al Zacher, who was involved in the previous transactions. “But it could be quite an attractive hall, and I do think a Latino venue there would be a good idea.” Sockrider, who has been working to interest more Hispanics in bowling, no doubt would approve.
But, once again, the decision is out of his hands.
E-mail Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at 461-8355.