Belleville

Owner of Belleville strip mall says he may shut it down; doesn't know why city is mad at him

The owner of the embattled $20 Shoe Outlet said he is considering shutting down his west Belleville business, along with other stores he owns in New Jersey.

"Financially, we're not doing well," he said of his company that owns the stores.

He blames the money trouble on the recession, and said business is down by as much as 40 percent from last year at some of his stores.

Six months ago, he listed his Belleville property at 6400 W. Main St. for lease or sale at about $1.98 million. He purchased the place for $1.1 million in September 2006, according to St. Clair County property assessment records. On Friday, he said he's willing to lease the 30,000-square-foot shoe store for $7,500 per month.

City leaders have accused 38-year-old Noray Baklayan of not making agreed-upon improvements, such as painting, replacing rotting wood, resurfacing the parking lot, installing new lighting and generally cleaning up. He was supposed to make those improvements to the shopping plaza, where he opened his store in 2007, by May 2008. In June, hoping that cutting off his rental income would get him to comply, city leaders said they would not allow any new businesses in.

The New Jersey resident said he doesn't know why the city is mad at him. He said that, with help from his tenant business owners, he did the work he could afford. He repaired a leaking roof, hauled about four trailers of "junk" away from the shoe store building's previous tenant, the Mad Pricer grocery store, and painted and improved the parking lot.

He spent $250,000 just fixing the place up to open, he said.

"We did what we could," he said, adding that he thinks he met most of the city's requirements.

Baklayan said any major additional work on the property likely won't happen unless he can get some help from the city.

"I'm willing to stay if the city can help us," he said. "I don't know what they're looking for from me. If they want me to spend $50,000-$60,000, I don't have it."

In 2007, Baklayan told the News-Democrat the city wanted $120,000 worth of repairs from him and that he didn't have the money. He said Friday that that was after he had already spent $250,000 just to be able to open the place.

He now faces back property tax bills: St. Clair County is owed $85,128 for 2006 and $102,372 for 2007. It's not clear whether Baklayan owes those entire amounts; those details are in the contract he signed when he purchased the property.

He doesn't want to close the shoe store. He thinks it provides an important product -- quality shoes at prices that are affordable for families on a budget.

"But if the city gives me problems, I have no choice," Baklayan said. "If that's what they want, if they want the place shut down, we have to shut it down."

Mayor Mark Eckert said he doesn't want the store to fail. He's happy to work with Baklayan on some type of economic incentive to help with improvements.

Because the plaza is in a tax increment financing district and an enterprise zone, it qualifies for some public funding to help with infrastructure. Eckert said the city has offered that assistance from the time Baklayan bought the building in 2006, but he never submitted a plan. Baklayan said the city never offered incentives.

Eckert said Baklayan recently hasn't even returned city leaders' phone calls. Baklayan said he didn't know city leaders were trying to reach him. He said he has been in and out of the hospital with complications from Crohn's disease, and that there was a miscommunication at some point.

He expects to be back in Belleville within the next month, but doesn't know yet whether he'll try to meet with the mayor.

"My health right now is more important," Baklayan said.

Jim Orlet, who owns The Abbey coffeehouse across West Main Street from the plaza, said he thinks Baklayan is irresponsible for not maintaining his property.

He said his customers comment to him that the place looks tacky and undermaintained.

Orlet said he hopes it sells to the right person: Someone who could "Turn the place around, get it a little tender loving care."

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