Eastland Mall has two things you can't find at any other shopping complex in the city: soccer and Jesus.
In 2008, Concrete2Green, a for-profit urban soccer company, took over the old ice skating rink in the mall. About a year later, Renovatus Church entered the mall -- taking up residence in the abandoned movie theater -- with a mission to serve Eastland and east Charlotte.
But after June 30, Charlotte won't have Eastland Mall anymore. On April 16, tenants -- which consist of small businesses since the last national chain (Burlington Coat Factory) closed in March -- were notified that the mall was facing foreclosure. A letter sent to tenants by mall management stated: "It is understood that the lender or any other party that acquires title to Eastland Mall at foreclosure will close the mall."
And Eastland's imminent "demise" casts clouds of uncertainty over Concrete2Green and Renovatus, thrusting the futures of both organizations firmly into limbo.
Concrete2Green's president and co-founder, Akbar Majeed, said the 14,000-square-foot area his group leased was much more than a place where people came to play soccer. The ice skating rink had playrooms and offices beside the center rink that the group used for office space and space for community members.
"We were able to reach people from the Latin Diaspora, the African Diaspora and the European Diaspora. We converted an old playroom into a dance studio. We partnered with Mix Academy who used the DJ booth on Saturdays as well. On any given week, we've had 200 to 300 people in and out," said Majeed.
And, he explained, Concrete2Green served its main purpose -- bringing different cultures together in the city through soccer and community service. "One of the challenges, particularly in Charlotte, is you have a lot of good people doing a lot of great work in the community servicing families and children," he said, "but there aren't a lot of spaces for people to be able to come together that's affordable and accessible."
Majeed said even though there have been talks about partnering with the city, he doesn't think that's going to happen or that the city is concerned about where the businesses from the mall will go.
"The individuals that I am talking to are genuinely trying to help. But at the end of the day, there is only so much they can do. I don't think there is any ill will out there that's happening, but I don't think it's a big effort out there to do much to relocate or to assist," he said. "This is something that has been happening for years, so I don't think people should expect something to happen right now."
For now, Concrete2Green is still open, but scaled back. The group cut its hours and the plans to leave the mall in mid-June.
According to Majeed, money and the lack of a facility with the space the company needs is holding Concrete2Green, which makes its money from fees charged to the soccer leagues, back from knowing if they will have a future in Charlotte. "What happens after June 30," he said, "is really up in the air."
While Majeed is considering a move from the Queen City, Renovatus, is committed to east Charlotte, whether they have a sanctuary there or not.
When Pastor Jonathan Martin gave his first sermon at Eastland Mall in October, he knew there was a chance that the mall wouldn't be the permanent home of his non-denominational church.
"We know the [mall's] reputation is bad, but this church is for liars, dreamers and misfits. This mall has been forgotten, dismissed and overlooked," Martin told Creative Loafing back in October about the move to the mall. "Our goal in coming here is to serve the people in the mall. We would love to unleash people on the food court. We're hoping to bring some life back to this property."
Renovatus (which is Latin for "renovation") had been trying to renovate and stimulate business in Eastland. Martin said first-time visitors to the church were given vouchers to eat in the food court. The church had opened a café, which provided free coffee, tea and pastries and was in the process of reopening one of the theaters to show movies to the public again.
"I'm the most sad for the other business owners in the mall," Martin said. "We're in a place where I don't anticipate it being difficult to find another place to worship. I am more concerned about the other local merchants here. There is always so much rhetoric from the city about small-business owners. Well, OK, here's about 60 of them. These last couple of months that we have here, we just want to do all that we can to help them."
Martin, who had hoped Eastland Mall would have been given more of a chance to return to its past glory, said he's disappointed about the impending closing, but the church has reaped benefits from being in east Charlotte.
"The time that we've been here has been so valuable," said Martin, "We don't have any regrets about coming into the mall. Just the connections that we've been able to make with the community here and the ministries that we've been able to start that aren't contingent on whether we're able to be here."
At a meeting hosted by the church on April 28 attended by city leaders and mall merchants, Martin acknowledged that the city doesn't have an obligation to helping the businesses move from the mall to other locations, but hoped the city would assist the businesses. As of last week, Martin said the church had not found a new home, but were following leads on school auditoriums and old storefronts that used to be churches all over the city.