The owner of an indoor playground at Lebanon Valley Mall says she’s being evicted without explanation and with very little warning.
“I don’t want to badmouth the mall, but at the same time I do. Why can’t I stay?” Jacqueline Forney, owner of Five Stone Kids since 2019, told LebTown. “I bring kids into the mall. I do bring in traffic … to a mall that is not very busy.”
The 10-year-old business took a substantial hit during the worst days of COVID-19, and it was forced to close for a few months during the worst of the pandemic. Forney said mall management was very “gracious” and allowed her to stay at the location rent-free for several months, as long as she paid the cost of utilities. Later, she began paying a reduced monthly rent of $350 while she tried to get back on her feet.
“COVID has been hard to come back from. I thought the mall understood that,” she said.
But Forney said mall management initiated eviction proceedings without ever talking with her about increasing her rent.
“I’m willing to pay rent again. I’m willing to stay on a month-to-month lease,” she said. “I’ve made it clear I’m willing to stay and I’m willing to pay, and I’ve gotten nowhere.”
She’s angry and hurt, she said, that she wasn’t given a good reason for her eviction.
“Nobody came to me and said, ‘We can’t accommodate this any more. You’ll need to start paying rent.’ No one made me aware of any problem. I thought they were being gracious because I’m small, and I was bringing traffic into the mall,” she said. “I’m a first-time business owner. I should have been given an opportunity to make things right.”
Although she was originally told to be out by Dec. 17, Forney received a formal “termination of lease” letter on Dec. 1 extending her deadline to vacate to Dec. 31.
Mall manager Michelle Tuscano has not responded to media questions about the situation. Tuscano said in an email to LebTown in November that she is “unable to go on record regarding current tenant business.”
Forney said she has exchanged several messages with Jacob Stein, executive vice president of operations for Boscov’s, the company that owns the mall.
“This is unacceptable, for a business that has been with you for so long,” she said in an message to Stein. “Be reasonable and please give me more time to vacate. I have to find a place and move 10 yrs worth of business, this takes time. Please don’t kill my business because you’re unwilling to work with someone who has done you no wrong.”
Stein’s reply: “Please focus your time energy and effort on your next steps. The turnover date of 12/31 is firm. If you need help storing items for a short period of time, we can assist with that.”
‘Kept in the dark’
Forney said rumors are flying that other tenants of the mall have been evicted, but she doesn’t know details. She said the owners of the Innocent Reptile Experience reached out to her because they, too, were being evicted; however, when contacted by LebTown, owners Sean and Morgan Innocent said they “haven’t been evicted.”
“Our contract is up. We have outgrown the mall and we need more space. We are looking into options where we can have an outdoor space,” their message stated.
Forney said there have been rumors that her space, and possibly others, have already been leased out to a new tenant. On Dec. 4, she sent a follow-up email to LebTown stating that she “found out who is renting my space.”
Although she didn’t identify the new tenant, she said “that is not my issue.” Rather, she said, she learned that the new tenant has had an agreement with mall management since September, possibly sooner.
“Why was I only told, just recently?” she asked. “They have known for so long, why couldn’t they have been honest with me then? I would have had time to look for a place and pack my store.”
She’s upset, Forney added, because she was “kept in the dark about all of this. … They really went about this in an underhanded way.”
Although Tuscano declined to discuss the matter with LebTown, Forney said the manager has given her “multiple reasons” for the sudden eviction. However, Forney said, the reasons change from day to day.
Initially, she said, Tuscano assured her the decision had nothing to do with money. Later, she told Forney it was because of the money.
“I don’t feel I’m getting the direct story,” Forney complained. “If it’s about the money, let’s make it right.”
‘Busy and not-so-busy’
Customers pay just $10 for a child to play at Five Stone Kids for the day. Often, Forney said, one parent will stay with a child while the other shops in the mall.
Forney said she has more than 1,000 customers in her database, many of whom are regulars who use the playground often.
She stressed that it’s not a day-care facility, and a parent is required to stay with children while they’re using the play area. The area includes slides, trampolines, a ball pit and other amenities for kids.
“It’s designed to accommodate ages 10 and under,” Forney said. “We can accommodate those who are older who would like to play, we just ask them to be mindful of the younger children and the equipment.”
Business goes through “busy and not-so-busy spells,” she said. There isn’t as much business since the pandemic, she noted. Plus, Forney added, “with the economy, people aren’t out as much.”
However, she added, “I have a lot of regulars who come in. I have people that I can talk to like we’ve been friends forever.”
The play space has five employees and includes a small toy and book store.
The space can also be reserved for birthday parties. Forney noted that she has parties scheduled into January that will have to be refunded.
A GoFundMe campaign was started on Nov. 12 to try and keep her business afloat. Although the goal is $10,000, the campaign had raised only $280 as of 3 p.m. Dec. 6.
‘Not willing to work with me’
The mall has some vacant spaces, Forney said, and she asked Tuscano if she could move into a different storefront. Tuscano declined, Forney said.
“I was told, her words to me, ‘There’s not really anything big enough for you.’ I think that was her way of saying they’re not willing to work with me,” Forney said.
The business was never a big moneymaker, she conceded, noting that she sometimes netted less than $100 per day. Some days, on the other hand, she made more than $500.
“I was struggling,” she said. “But I could make it. It was definitely a struggle, but I could have done it.”
Although she thinks her business is a good fit for the mall, Forney said she is considering other locations. She hasn’t looked at any specific sites yet, however.
“It can work outside a mall environment,” she said.
“I have dreams. I want my own building. I’d like to accommodate older kids,” Forney added.
“There’s not a lot in Lebanon County for kids today.”
For the time being, however, she’s focusing on packing up and getting out of the mall in the middle of a hectic Christmas season.
“I just want the mall to give me a chance,” Forney said. “Or give me 90 days to get out of there, I don’t feel that it’s unreasonable.”
Do you want to see more from LebTown?
Free news isn’t cheap. If you value the journalism LebTown provides to the community, then help us make it sustainable by becoming a champion of local news.
You can unlock additional coverage for the community by supporting our work with a one-time contribution, or joining as a monthly or annual member.
Questions about this story? Suggestions for a future LebTown article? Reach our newsroom using the contact form below and we’ll do our best to get back to you.