'Nobody Knows We're Here' : Mall Languishes With Empty Storefronts, Trickle of Business

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like a row of bright, forgotten flowers, hats line the wall in Brenda Harvest's shop, nodding at no one in the empty corridors of the city-owned Martin Luther King Jr. Transit Center.

A few doors down, an employee smears mustard on bread for one of the few customers he will see this day at Forge's Sub Factory. The only sound in the Polynesian gift store is owner Charlene Erwin turning the pages of her magazine.

Hopes were high when these shops moved into the center, which has room for 12 stores around a gurgling fountain. But after two years, few small businesses have taken root in the transit center.

Looking over her hat and dress shop, Harvest allows her anger to show. Hers was the first business to locate in what she was told would be a thriving mall.

Harvest and Erwin are being evicted after a yearlong rent strike. For them and other shop owners, the clean little mall is a bitter disappointment. Because the center has no sign outside, few passersby know the stores exist. And half the storefronts have remained vacant, giving visitors few reasons to linger. Some shop owners say they feel abandoned by their landlord, the city of Compton.

Cynthia Coleman, head of the city Community Redevelopment Agency that oversees the transit center, said city staff has done everything it can to make the center a success.

Her agency lured Greyhound Bus Lines into the center's anchor spot, even when the company was shutting down terminals elsewhere, she said. A popular community room in the mall, which rents for as much as $800 a night, is booked through the end of the year. And empty storefronts are symptoms of a struggling economy, not bad management, she said.

"I think the transit center is a success story," Coleman said.

If the center is so successful, business owners ask, why is the mall empty, and why can't they get a simple marquee out front listing the businesses inside?

"Nobody knows we're here," said Willie Forge, owner of the Sub Factory and one of the first to open a business in the mall's food court. "I'd say the city has to learn the marketing business."

Of the 12 storefronts available, only seven are occupied, including the Greyhound terminal and the two businesses that are being evicted. One space houses the Business Assistance Center, a joint city and federal project designed to encourage small business ownership after the 1992 riots.

The center, a concrete, steel and glass structure on the site of the former Boys Market, was built at a cost of $4.7 million, said Gloria Falls of the Community Redevelopment Agency, which initiated the project. It was financed with voter-approved county taxes earmarked for transportation and related projects.

The Redevelopment Agency and the city's general services office jointly oversee the center. But neither office keeps an accounting of center expenses and income, so it is unknown if the project is making or losing money, Falls said.

City leaders envisioned the project as a centerpiece for the revitalization of Compton's downtown area. Located on Willowbrook Avenue about a block from City Hall and the county courthouse, the center is just steps away from the Metro Blue Line station and Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus stops.

In 1989, even before the official opening in July, 1990, the U.S. Census Bureau moved into a storefront. But it moved out in 1991. Finding other tenants has been a slow, arduous business.

The problem, most everyone agrees, is advertising. The only sign listing mall stores is a small, glass-encased bulletin board out front with inch-high letters.

"It's such an artsy building, we didn't want to slap just any old sign out there. We didn't want to ruin the architecture," Coleman said, acknowledging that many people don't know that shops are inside. "We're working on putting some additional signage out front."

Shop owners grumble that the city has been talking about those signs for too long, while they struggle in anonymity.

"I had been promised that marquee since June of 1991," Harvest said. "It doesn't take three years to put up a marquee."

Coleman denies that Harvest or any other business was promised a marquee. But Harvest insists that the promise of a sign encouraged her to open her store in December, 1991.

Harvest, who also works for the city's Public Works Department as an office assistant, chose a storefront near doors to the 98-space parking lot, used mostly by park-and-ride commuters who stream toward the Blue Line and bus stops. She agreed to pay $505 a month for the 405-square-foot space, invested $60,000, she said, and hung up her fancy dresses and hand-finished hats.

"Business was pretty good at first," she said. "We got to pay the light bills, things like that."

Two months later, Forge moved his sandwich shop in. He was followed by Greyhound, Tony & Chris Polynesian Wear, the Wok N Grill restaurant and a hair salon.

When rioting broke out in April, 1992, city fathers moved the National Guard in to protect the center. The troops stayed, sleeping in unused stores, for weeks. Soldiers with guns were posted at the front and back doors, a visible deterrent for customers, Harvest said. Business suffered.

By August, with business still down, Harvest laid off two part-time employees, brought her brother in to help with sales and fell behind in the rent. Still angry about the lack of a sign, she began a rent strike with Forge, Erwin, and the owner of a beauty supply store, that has since moved.

The city made a deal with Forge, lowering the monthly rent on his 400-square-foot store to $250. This month, the city successfully petitioned the court to evict Harvest and Erwin. Erwin, who also works for the Compton Unified School District, says her store has managed to sell just one $10 piece of lace in nearly two years.

The remaining businesses are still hoping for a way to let customers know they are open inside the center. To help them, transit center operations manager Charles Lewis drew a marquee design and turned it in to the Planning Department nine months ago. He hasn't heard anything since.

"This is a prime location, with the transportation all around, so I expected more business," said Sean Kang, owner of the Wok N Grill, who is struggling to pay off the bank and family loans he took to get his business started. "But I still believe this place is going to be great in the future . . . when there aren't so many empty stores."

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