Whether it’s Halloween or any time of the year, nothing terrifies a mall property owner or developer more than an big empty store.
So, better to fill it with a host of ghouls, goblins, witches, ghosts, zombies and monsters howling like mad, dripping ooze or blood, and reaching long bony hands toward your head.
At least they pay rent.
“Obviously, when you’ve got a 100,000-square-foot structure, empty, with no rent, and have to heat it and cool it all year round, when you find a tenant that will take it, as is, for four months, that certainly helps to take that pain away,” said Penny D. Cipolla, president of Innovative Realty Services, a Bowmansville-based commercial real estate brokerage firm.
And what better place to stash all those frightening creatures, where they can scare the living daylights out of adults and children, than in a cavernous, dark, echoing hulk – with a big parking lot outside.
“For a haunted house, you need to find a big space,” said Tim Bunch, founder and owner of House of Horrors and Haunted Catacombs, located this year in a former Circuit City store at Union Consumer Square in Cheektowaga. “There’s usually big buildings this size that are available.”
Such is the type of informal relationship that arises every year and benefits both landlord and tenant. Haunted houses or holiday-themed specialty retailers need temporary quarters for the few weeks every year when they make their money. And property owners need to find a money-making use for those big vacant buildings until they can attract other permanent users for the spaces, which are often so large that the opportunities for reuse are limited.
“You need a place for your attractions,” Bunch said. And “you really don’t have too many of these people knocking down doors to sign leases on big buildings.”
As Halloween approaches, at least three haunted house attractions have set up shop in former big-box stores. Besides Bunch’s outfit, Eerie Productions’ Frightworld is operating in the long-vacant former Bon-Ton department store at Northtown Plaza on Sheridan Drive in Amherst, while District of the Dead hung its shingle on a big store at nearby Sheridan Plaza, at Sheridan and Eggert Road.
And a national specialty retailer, Spirit Halloween, is also open for business with several temporary, short-term leases at 3050 Sheridan Dr. at the Amherst Shopping Center, Transitown Plaza at 4259 Transit Rd. in Williamsville, Delaware Consumer Square at 2730 Delaware Ave. in Buffalo, Union Consumer Square in Cheektowaga, McKinley Milestrip Center at 4495 Milestrip Rd. in Hamburg, Niagara Square at 7600 4th Ave. in Niagara Falls, Batavia Commons, at 419 West Main St. in Batavia, and Olean Center Mall at 400 N. Union St.
Eerie officials declined to be interviewed, while District of the Dead officials could not be reached for comment. DDR, the landlord for two of the properties, did not respond to requests for comment.
“They bring people into the center,” said Cipolla, whose firm handles leasing for the Bon-Ton store at Northtown and has also worked with Spirit Halloween stores. “It’s beneficial to the landlord and the adjacent tenants.”
Of course, for it to work, a short-term lease arrangement has to make sense for both parties. For a haunted house business like Bunch’s, factors like size, availability of parking, accessibility and visibility are key, as well as the affordability of the lease.
“There’s a lot of buildings that are really nice buildings, but they just didn’t have the parking. If you don’t have the parking, it’s a real problem,” he said. And “you need something that’s real easy to get to. Everybody knows where the Galleria Mall is. You need a good location that’s easy to get to.”
That’s why Union Consumer Square, near the Walden Galleria, works so well, he said. “It’s right near the Thruway and the 33, so it’s easy to get to,” he said. “This plaza is nice, because it’s a really big parking lot, and you don’t usually get busy until 9 p.m. and by then, the rest of the stores are closed.”
Bunch would know. This is the 11th year for House of Horrors, which Bunch started after volunteering and working at the original Haunted Catacombs in junior high and high school. Haunted Catacombs later went out of business in 2005, so Bunch bought it a year later. The business now employs about 70 people, who are “either scaring in the haunted houses, or scaring everyone waiting in line.”
In its first year, House of Horrors was located in a 13,000-square-foot storefront in a mostly abandoned strip mall on Sheridan Drive in Clarence, and then later occupied old space at the Galleria and then two former Ames Department Store locations at George Urban Boulevard and Dick Road and then at French and Union roads.
Bunch said he doesn’t go through real estate brokers in search of space, but typically searches online and drives around to find suitable buildings before calling the property owners directly. At just under 50,000 square feet, its current location is actually smaller than some of the previous sites, which ranged from 80,000 to 100,000 square feet, but Bunch said he had few options.
“This is a little smaller than I’ve had in the past, but trying to find a big 100,000-square-foot building, you’re not going to find it,” he said. “We pretty much use every square foot.”