By Matt Westerhold, Sandusky Living
SANDUSKY — The stretch from Strub Road to Ohio 2 on U.S. 250 was miles of country road and corn fields for those old enough to remember before the Sandusky Mall was built.
Today it remains the busiest commercial strip in Erie County and one of the busiest most successful retail districts in the state, in no small part thanks to the development 50 years ago of the mall.
Anthony Cafaro Jr. wasn’t born yet when his grandfather, William M. Cafaro and his grandfather’s brother, John A. Cafaro, began planning and meeting with representatives from the giant retailers of the day that would become the anchor stores at the mall.
He was just 1-year-old when it opened in 1976.
“It was a relationship business. Everything was between them and the stores. You got an agreement from JCPenny and Montgomery Wards, and the smaller retailers would come along,” Anthony Cafaro Jr. said. “Once you had the anchors, the specialty stores followed.”
Today, Anthony Cafaro Jr. and his brother, William A. Cafaro, are co-CEOs of the company, carrying on the family tradition of running the company, which is based in Niles, Ohio, the original developers of the Sandusky Mall.
“It’s the only thing I’ve ever known. I enjoy what I do,” Cafaro said.
Cafaro Co. continues to manage and operate the Sandusky Mall, 11 other malls and a number of other shopping centers across the country stretching from Washington state to Virginia. The portfolio encompasses more than 50 properties, in all, and has developed over 30 million square feet of space in 14 states.
Cafaro Co. was the developer of both the Sandusky Plaza on Cleveland Road and the Perkins Plaza on East Perkins Avenue, a property it continues to own to this day, in the 1950s, including the beloved Hills store at Perkins Plaza.
Cafaro’s father, Anthony Cafaro Sr., became CEO in the 1980s, and worked alongside his brother and sister. Cafaro Jr. said he’s hard-pressed to remember a time when he wasn’t working in retail, in some capacity.
“I’m part of a family business. You can’t separate my family from the business,” he said. “I started working at the age of 12, at Eastwood Mall (in Niles).”
His job back then included painting curbs in the parking lot of that Cafaro Co.-owned mall, maintaining the decorative fountains and other facility work.
“Those were my summer jobs, working with our maintenance crews. We all started working from the ground up,” he said. That too is the the family tradition, he said.
There was never a time when he wasn’t thinking about the business, but after graduating from John Carroll University in Cleveland with a business management degree at the end of December 1996, Cafaro thought he might take some time off to celebrate his accomplishment.
It wasn’t like he needed to find himself or travel to Europe. He knew where he was headed, but his father agreed granted him the whole month of January off. Cafaro reported for work on Feb. 3, 1997, as a full-timer in the family business.
“I was very motivated to become an adult and take on adult responsibilities,” he said.
Some of his first responsibilities were the same ones his grandfather and great uncle took on when they started the company in 1949: leasing. It’s a job responsibility he’s had ever since he started in the management division with the company in 1997.
Cafaro remembers a retail center in Canton and small shopping plaza in Corry, Pennsylvania, were among his first job tasks.
“At one of the centers there were zero tenants,” he recalled. “It was 100% empty.”
His father still works today with his sons, as a consultant, with an office alongside theirs at corporate headquarters. If you’re a Cafaro, and you’re in the family business, you’re always working on some level.
“We don’t go home from work and not hear about what needs done at work. Working with family they are your shareholders and there’s nobody else in the world you can trust more,” Cafaro said.
Cafaro’s nephews — representing the fourth generation — have begun working during summers, he said.
Anthony Cafaro Jr. is relying on that experience — the early training from the maintenance department up to the executive suite and everything in between over the last 25 years — to meet the challenges that exist in the retail environment today.
Malls across the country must adapt to survive, Cafaro said, and he and his brother are committed to restructuring the Sandusky Mall and the other Cafaro Co. properties.
Millions of dollars already have been spent rebuilding the mall. The Hobby Lobby store opened in 2020; the T.J.Maxx store moved from an interior storefront in the mall to a newly renovated front-facing storefront where the old Macy’s store stood along with Five Below; and the restaurant, Another Broken Egg, opened in the renovated space where the old Ruby Tuesday’s was located.
Another retailer, Ross Dress for Less, will open at the mall this year.
All of the retailers and the new restaurant are characteristically different from past tenants at the mall.
“There was a turning point,” Cafaro said, after Macy’s closed and after other anchor retailers, including the Sears store, Elder Beerman and others went out of business.
“The mall is in much better shape today than it was just a few years ago with those recent additions,” he said. “But there is more work to do.”
The Sandusky Mall and every retail center everywhere must adapt to modern consumers, he said, which includes a little bit of the old but some of the new, including online shopping.
“Bringing in the Hobby Lobby was a signal there’s a great opportunity for revival,” he said. “We have the attitude that we can re-imagine, or re-invent it. Our goal now is to make the mall not just viable, but relevant.”
One proposal that’s stalled is to build a high-end apartment complex near the mall, which was actually part of the original plan for the property in the early 1970s. It’s even more relevant today than it was then, he said.
It’s not just to provide apartments, but a residential community near the mall will also provide a different setting that will attract retailers to locate at the mall. The company must do everything in its power to keep the center the “go to” address for retailers and others.
The Erie County commissioners have been unable to reach an agreement that will provide some tax incentives to build the Villas at Sandy Creek, but Cafaro said he’s hopeful that conversation with commissioners gets re-started soon.
Cafaro Co. pays millions in property taxes each year on the mall property and at its other properties in Erie County and across the state and nation. In Ohio, that money primarily goes to fund local schools.
The Perkins Schools and township government both have approved the project, and he hopes commissioners will see that the Villas at Sandy Creek apartments project, which he called a mixed use development, is directly linked to securing the mall’s future, providing jobs and services in the community.
Diversity is key, Cafaro said, for the Sandusky Mall and for other retail centers, to not only survive but to thrive in a changing market. “Brick & mortar” storefront retailing will never be like it was in the past, but providing different alternatives will be key to success in the future.
“This can’t be the mall from the 1970s,” he said. “We must change. It has to be broader, more diverse.”
That could include athletic training centers inside mall buildings, or reconstructed buildings, warehouse distribution centers or combination retailer-distribution or pickup centers and other changes he and his company continue exploring.
Consumers today are much different than they were in 1976 when the mall opened, and even more different that they were in the late 1940s and early 1950s when the plazas were being developed in Sandusky.
His family’s company is uniquely equipped to manage that changing retail environment and managing the changes, Cafaro said. It’s what they’ve been doing for 73 years.
And, just as when he started back in 1997 in the leasing division of Cafaro Co., Anthony Cafaro Jr. and his brother Willim A. Cafaro, like their father and their grandfather before them, are talking with retailers and other business interests of every kind looking to bring them to Sandusky, in some capacity.
William M. Cafaro and John Cafaro founded Cafaro Co. in 1949. and started their family business developing properties for grocers. Today, the Cafaro portfolio encompasses more than 50 properties and has developed over 30 million square feet of space in 14 states. A third generation of the Cafaro family is now guiding the company. Co-Presidents William A. Cafaro and Anthony Cafaro Jr. seek to maintain the values of stability and integrity they learned from their father and grandfather.
BOX 2 – Three questions
• The most daring thing I ever did was … I’m going to pass on that one.”
• “The best decision I ever made was to start a family.”
• “I’m happiest when I’m playing with my kids.”