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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    What’s Going On: Crystal Mall gets a bit more life thanks to RV display

    The Pete’s RV sale going on through July 9 at the Crystal Mall in Waterford includes motorized vehicles from $20,000 to $200,000. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    A small RV meant to be towed by an electric or compact car is one of the many choices at the Pete’s RV sale going on through July 9 at the Crystal Mall in Waterford. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Balloons attached to light poles are meant to attract customers to the Pete’s RV sale going on through July 9 at the Crystal Mall in Waterford. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Chad Niehanke shows off a hidden television that is built into one of the more expensive RV models now on view at the Pete’s RV sale going on through July 9 at the Crystal Mall in Waterford. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    Pete’s RV salesman Chad Niehanke checks his cellphone as he shows off several of the larger and more expensive models for sale at the Crystal Mall on Friday, June 21, 2024. The sale continues through July 9. Photo by Lee Howard/The Day
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    As the Crystal Mall nears its 40th anniversary in September, a visit on Friday was not so much a walk down memory lane as a stroll through a ghost town.

    But on the way out, after noting the recent demise of Rue 21 and the pure emptiness of the now-shuttered JC Penney store that was the last of the anchor establishments to drop by the wayside just a few weeks ago, I spied something surprising sprawled out in the parking lot.

    It was a display of about 50 brand new vehicles, parked in the formation of a large comma, dotting the cracked parking lot directly across from JC Penney.

    Brilliant.

    I mean the space should be used for something, right? And now an entrepreneur has found a new way to get the word out about their business. Nothing wrong with that.

    So I ambled on over to check it out on a hot and humid June day, not quite knowing what I’d find.

    A very pleasant Georgia native named Chad Niehanke greeted me immediately and had me climb aboard a Greyhawk by Jayco RV complete with a refrigerator, microwave oven and a beautiful stand-up shower.

    This had to be the super luxurious model, right? Nope, Class C, middle of the road, I was told. Later, Chad showed me the higher-class models that included hidden televisions, island kitchens, office spaces and spacious bedrooms.

    OK, I had to learn more, so Chad connected me with the sales manager of Pete’s RV Center in South Windsor, a guy by the name of Ryan Auayoub.

    Ryan came up with this crazy idea of putting on an RV sale in the middle of the Crystal Mall parking lot, where once hundreds of vehicles thronged on a rainy day in the summer. On Friday, there were perhaps 20 cars on the RV sale side of the onetime shopping mecca.

    In fact, this is the second year Pete’s RV, a family owned business with nine locations that started in Burlington, Vt., has put on a show and sale at the mall.

    “It was a great success for us,” said Ryan via phone, noting that they have sold dozens of RVs during their month here.

    The RV display started this year on Memorial Day weekend and was supposed to end this Sunday, but now it is being extended to July 9.

    “There’s not much of a dealer presence down there,” Ryan said. “It’s a good road with good frontage and a lot of organic drive-by traffic.”

    Ryan said Pete’s RV has done a couple radio spots and some Facebook ads, but most of the business has come by word of mouth or people seeing the balloons and banners festooned at the mall entrance.

    Buyers tend to be people from the U.S. Submarine Base, Electric Boat and folks who live or visit local campgrounds. Several people have come down from Rhode Island as well, he said, since parts of the state do not have a lot of places to shop for RVs.

    “This is prime time for us,” Ryan said. “We like to run it in between the two biggest camping holidays, Memorial Day and July 4 when there’s an uptick in traffic.”

    The sale includes a wide mix of the top-selling RV brands, both fully motorized or ready to be hitched onto a truck. Prices for the motorized RVs start at $20,000 and range up to $200,000. Some of the models on display look like they could be carried by a strong rickshaw driver, while others are as big as cabin cruisers.

    And while RVs decades ago may have been lucky to get 8 mpg, some of the smaller diesel engine varieties can now get up to 16 mpg, Ryan said. RVs were once geared almost exclusively to the senior market, but he said they now appeal to all age groups, with bunkhouse units sleeping up to 10 people, perfect for a family.

    “They’ve come a long way, for sure,” Ryan said. “The crowd gets younger and younger.”

    The RV sale is staffed during the week by two people during regular mall hours, and more folks on the weekend, when they sometimes include a cookout. Ryan has done this kind of mall sale at only one other location: Buckland Hills Mall in Manchester (now the Shoppes at Buckland Hills), he said, but mostly he sticks to consumer RV shows and fairgrounds to get the word out.

    “The mall was a fairly new idea,” he said. “It’s been a good area.”

    A good area for a temporary sale of expensive RVs, but not so good if you’re trying to market greeting cards, men’s wear and hip clothing, as current vacancies tell the story. Good entrepreneurs like those at Pete’s RV can make things work with a little imagination and the flexibility to try new things, but there appears to be little of that going on with the Crystal Mall’s new management company.

    Nearly 40 years after opening to great fanfare and enthusiastic applause, only about half the smaller store spaces are now filled, and only two restaurants remain. All the major department stores are gone entirely.

    But there’s a pretty fantastic RV sale going on.

    Lee Howard is The Day’s business editor. To reach him, email l.howard@theday.com.

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