Just steps away from the busy Staten Island Ferry Terminal, the Empire Outlets seemed packed with potential. Investors counted on foot traffic and a scenic backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. At the grand opening in 2019, officials voiced high hopes.
“For years we said, 'How are you going to get the tourists off the ferry?' So, here you go. I see this as a huge win for Staten Island,” then-Borough President James Oddo said.
The mall cost $350 million to build, with the city and state chipping in nearly $100 million in taxpayer funded grants. But right away, the project ran into trouble.
Efforts to lure big-name luxury retailers failed. Plans for the giant observation wheel next door also fell through. And then came COVID-19. Several stores closed for good.
“There were a lot of hurdles that were thrown in the way as this opened up,” said Michael Cusick, president of the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation.
“I think this has always been something that people have wished for, is that this becomes a bustling area where people can start a business, people can thrive in a business and then that will attract younger people to stay on Staten Island,” he said.
Today, 37 retailers call the outlets home — far fewer than the 100 stores originally planned. Yolanda Covington and her two daughters opened Asili’s wellness boutique earlier this year.
“We have been having a lot of customers from all over. Some days it’s unexpected all who’s going to come in. We don’t know. Sometimes it’s really busy and some days it’s a little slow. But overall, we are doing pretty decent,” she said.
While they want to stay here, the mall’s future remains in limbo.
The mall went into foreclosure when developer BFC Partners reportedly stopped making debt payments during COVID. At a public auction on Sept. 21, it will be sold to the highest bidder.
Sam Chandan from NYU’s Stern School of Business said given the current retail climate, the mall could look different down the road, and become a more mixed-use property.
“This really does become an opportunity for whoever takes control of the space to reimagine and rethink some aspects of the space,” he said.
A spokesperson for original investor, Goldman Sachs, told NY1 the bank’s Urban Investment Group will bid at the auction.
“Goldman Sachs is committed to Staten Island and identifying the best outcome for Empire Outlets,” a spokesperson said. They went on to stress that if the bank wins the auction, there will be no disruption to tenant operations.
That’s what the owners of Asili’s want to hear, as they hope to one day expand at the outlets.
“I am hopeful that our new owners will see the value in this mall and really make some better changes. It’s beautiful here. People love it here,” co-owner Jasmine Jackson said.
The city owns the land where the Empire Outlets sit. A spokesperson says as the landlord, the city’s Economic Development Corporation will work with the mall’s operator to help it reach its full potential.
“The retail market bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Empire Outlets were no exception. NYCEDC is confident that the conclusion of this process will generate new opportunities and a positive outcome,” a statement read.
The auction is set for 10 a.m. Thursday at Richmond County Supreme Court.