PLAIN TWP.  The Oakwood Square Plaza has undergone a lot of change not only in businesses, but ownership. Now, officials are hoping the new ownership can breathe new life into the struggling shopping plaza.

The latest sale for $1.7 million to One Easton Company from F & M Properties of Massillon comes following the plaza seeing years of vacant storefronts.

Plain Township Board of Trustees President Scott Haws said the past two owners of the plaza made some internal infrastructure improvements and repairs to the parking lot.

"This is stuff that is typically not attention grabbing, but it is critical to accommodating business," Haws said.

He said the new owners have been bouncing ideas off the zoning department, which include keeping the plaza all commercial or creating a combination of commercial and residential. While no formal plans have been submitted, Haws believes the sale was a good thing.

"The folks that have purchased the property definitely have a respected and known reputation for working with a larger regional anchor," Haws said. "In the seven years that I have served, this is the most action and legitimate inquiry that we have seen."

Haws said in the past, he has seen the community get excited and then nothing would materialize.

"The trustees are entering into this with caution," Haws said. "Until we have a plan and we are stamping off and see movement on it, we don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up."

Based off traffic stats, Haws said, there is the population to support for a plaza like Oakwood, which has experienced an increase with new residential housing nearby.

THE STRUGGLE

Oakwood Square isn’t dead, but it has been struggling since Giant Eagle left as the anchor store in 2000 for Washington Square in North Canton.

The plaza is only about 30 percent occupied.

"Shopping centers like the Oakwood Square must have a popular big box anchor store for the entire shopping center to flourish," Township Planning, Zoning and Development Director Tom Ferrara said.

Ferrara said having a big box anchor draws the necessary traffic to the smaller businesses in and around the shopping center.

Haws said hands-down the biggest factor to the struggle of the plaza was Giant Eagle leasing the anchor space to block any other grocer from entering the space. He said Giant Eagle continued to renew its lease and that has kept another business from the occupying the space for approximately 15 years.

"What they did by keeping that space empty, I get it from a business aspect," Haws said.

Haws said the real issue is when something is allowed to go into disarray it does damage to a community and drags down nearby residential values. Oakwood Square isn’t the only plaza Giant Eagle has done this to, Haws said. He also said from his understanding Giant Eagle wasn’t granted any further lease extensions thorough court action.

"When they left, they refused to give up their lease on the building, which caused the building to sit empty for many, many years," Ferrara said. "This caused the smaller businesses in and around Oakwood Square, that depended on the traffic that the anchor store generates, to begin to suffer for lack of business. This triggered a downward spiral for the shopping center and the surrounding areas that was seemingly irreversible, given that the landlord was unable to fill the anchor store location."

THE FUTURE

Haws said the new owner has been working with an anchor store, but the name has not been released yet. Haws has reached out himself to Kroger and Buehler’s to see if either would be interested in the space. He said Kroger needs a larger footprint for a store and Buehler’s said the investment was cost prohibited for them to open a store in the space.

Not far from the plaza there is a Giant Eagle, Fishers, Wal-Mart, Acme and Marcs.

"In reality, there are a lot of grocery stores around there," Haws said.

Haws said an anchor store would do wonders for the plaza and help the current businesses thrive. 

"We would love to see this plaza get revitalized and the life brought back to it," Haws said.

There is hope as the township recently saw the Venue at Belden plaza open with new stores including Earth Fare, HomeGoods, Stein Mart and H.H. Gregg.

Haws would like to see the plaza gain a drug and grocery store, another restaurant, barber shop or hair salon and some sort of professional service.

"For me to sit here and tell you I would love to see a Target or a Dicks Sporting Good, that would be nice, but it is definitely not realistic based on demographics, traffic count and the kind of investment that that would be," Haws said.

A timetable for when the new owner will present a plan is not known.

Attempts to reach Brock Walter, the mortgagor of the property were unsuccessful.

"My hope would be that in a very short time we will again see an exciting, bustling and stimulating place to go to have dinner, shop and meet with neighbors," Ferrara said.