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After two years spent waiting for Atlanta developers to pump new blood into its North Side property, the Azalea Mall Garden Center says it's time to go.

A Grower's Exchange

Mike McLaughlin saw it coming from 500 miles away.

His 35 years spent working at Woolworth taught him a thing or two about big business — and about changes that come with the territory. Still, he stuck it out, hoping he could keep his family-run garden center in business as he had for six years — through hard work and the support of loyal customers. And for the past two years he's been successful.

You may not see it from Brook Road or even Westbrook Avenue, but the Azalea Mall Garden Center is still in business, afloat in an overgrown and cracked-pavement sea that also engulfs the albatross that is Azalea Mall. Even with the problems of neglect and crime that plague vacant buildings, McLaughlin kept his regular customers, many North Side residents he knows by name.

But, finally, he had enough. Seemingly cut adrift by Dewberry Capital Corp. — the Atlanta-based developer that purchased the property more than two years ago with plans to build an upscale residential-retail complex — McLaughlin reluctantly says that in order to save his business, he has to move from the place he calls home.

When Dewberry Capital Corp., known in Atlanta for its upscale shopping centers and apartment complexes, purchased the beleaguered mall for a paltry $1.4 million, most of the idle tenants had bailed out. A few paddled along, desperately trying to keep heads above water until hope again brimmed with the rosy redevelopment plans of Dewberry Capital Corp. North Side civic associations and small business owners like McLaughlin crossed their fingers and waited.

But in Richmond, the only proof of any redevelopment plan is a sign facing Brook Road that reads: "Azalea Square, a 400,000 square-foot marketplace by Dewberry Capital." Only McLaughlin's Azalea Mall Garden Center, a First Union bank and a Jiffy Lube have held out for that coming-soon proclamation. Today, it's not the sign that turns heads, but the ugly salmon-colored mall structure that looks like a giant Shrinky Dink — that '70s craft toy that made colorful decorations out of baked sheets of plastic — however deformed and melted.

Two months ago, McLaughlin took action against what he felt were abuses of an indifferent landlord. "I've been in business all my life and I knew what [he] was up to," says McLaughlin, 58, whose previous career as a Woolworth manager planted him at Azalea Mall 12 years ago. "They eliminated the boy who picked up trash and I kind of knew they didn't want me here."

He learned, too, that Jiffy Lube is slated to leave in February 2000, although a manager for Jiffy Lube does not confirm this. And he worried that with winter's shortened days and little visibility to the public, Christmas tree sales would be slim. "Demolition was beginning and lights had been turned off," says McLaughlin. "Potholes weren't fixed."

In August, McLaughlin wrote to John K. Dewberry, president of Dewberry Capital Corp., requesting one of three things: reduced rent payments to $1,500 a month except in January and February when the garden center closes; or reduced rent payments to $1,500 a month from March through June, the only time that McLaughlin says are profitable; or a termination of the lease with plans to vacate by the end of the year. "I asked for a reduction in rent and basically was told: 'OK, but you must work for us. You can be our liaison between us and the community. There's just one thing you can do for us ...'" recalls McLaughlin.

Amid purple and yellow mums, pumpkins and terra-cotta planters McLaughlin has discovered just what this means. And today he's responsible for more than his own corner of the world, hidden from Westbrook Avenue by a high hedge of lucidum and the stubborn sprawl of honeysuckle. He's the parking lot security — after Dewberry Capital Corp. reduced security from 32 to six hours a week — checking out what he calls the "bad element" that includes drugs, prostitution, loitering and vandalism. Recently, McLaughlin saw to it that 11 truckloads of garbage were hauled away from the area behind the tattered bowling alley — at no cost to Dewberry. He even attended a VDOT meeting at Dewberry's request to drum up community support for an off-ramp that would link the property to Interstate 95 and would likely draw in much-needed traffic. The relationship between McLaughlin and Dewberry appeared secure. Then, McLaughlin got the blow he knew was coming. But knowing didn't make it any easier.

An Oct. 5 letter to McLaughlin from Dewberry reads: "We do appreciate the assistance you have provided with issues regarding security and the community however, once the demolition activity is completed, we do not see the need for this liaison requirement. Therefore, we feel that you should exercise your option #3 and we accept your notice to terminate your rent and vacate the premises ...."

"It's my understanding Mr. McLaughlin's just decided to move his business to another location," says W.J. Blane, senior vice president for development with Dewberry Capital Corp. And, Blane says, even after two years, the company still doesn't have any set plans to develop the property. "I can't offer you any perspective on the project in Richmond," says Blane.

This response from big-city developers is what causes McLaughlin to writhe out of his otherwise Johnny Appleseed-ish demeanor. "He asked me about the area, the neighborhood, the market, the demographics. You'd think they'd check that stuff out before they spent a million and a half for it and another million to take the building down," he scoffs, in recalling a recent phone conversation with Blane.

For McLaughlin, a Henrico resident, it's not just about his business. It's about North Side, a neighborhood he's grown to love. Still, his perseverance and membership in groups like the Ginter Park and Bellevue Homeowners Association and the Richmond Retail Merchants has caught the attention of his North Side neighbors, including the Bellevue Civic Association.

"He's a friend to the neighborhood. And the fact that he's hung in there and tried to have a commercial presence in that vast, deserted wasteland that is Azalea Mall is commendable," says the civic group's president Chuck Epes. Epes says that John K. Dewberry visited North Side a year ago and met with neighbors in both Bellevue and Ginter Park, assuring them that businesses like McLaughlin's would be safe in the midst of developing plans. This last move by Dewberry "suggests a breach of faith," says Epes who wrote a letter Oct. 12 to Dewberry expressing the civic association's support for McLaughlin and its concerns for the neighborhood. The letter also is an invitation for Dewberry to attend the group's next meeting in December. "We want to see that land develop ... but this leads us to question his longtime commitment and that's why we've invited him down and welcome a chance to chat with him," says Epes.

Still, McLaughlin appears resolute and peaceful, OK with the fact that it may have been his letter that pushed Dewberry to act and evict him. "I pushed him to tell me," McLaughlin says, the sun making his gray hair shine silver on a recent midday afternoon. No matter what, he says he'll keep his business in the neighborhood — somewhere. Already he has scouted a few places that may work out for business.

There's not much need for gardening supplies in October. "Days like this when it's beautiful, people come out," he says quietly. "But a lot of days it's cloudy and rains." On these days people forget about the gardening. Today, a mother and daughter pick a ripe pumpkin, its creased surface symmetric and smooth, and place it in a green wagon.

"I'll be better off, we'll be better off as a family," by moving the business, McLaughlin says as he watches the little girl steer the wagon guardedly along the pebbled path.

McLaughlin's move may not matter much to Dewberry Capital Corp., whose plans for Azalea Mall are to this community frustratingly sketchy. When McLaughlin looks at the ugly, soon-to-be demolished Azalea Mall building, he sees potential — perhaps an outlet mall with an Old Navy, Pfaltzgraf, Nine West and all the big-name stores his daughters think are cool.

Whatever Dewberry has in store for Azalea Mall remains, for now, a mystery. Whatever happens, McLaughlin's perception of Dewberry always will be clouded by how the company has dealt with the property: "It's absolutely worth nothing to them, and that really

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