The company that owns Brunswick Square says it's committed to keeping the mall "a vibrant place to work, shop and stay."In a statement emailed to CBC on Thursday afternoon, Slate Asset Management also said it will continue to work with local groups to find solutions. "Though enclosed retail spaces are facing headwinds from a lack of COVID-era foot traffic and a trend of accelerated ecommerce, Slate remains engaged in dialogue and will continue to bring solutions to the table."Mayor Don Darling suggested earlier this week that the city has had trouble getting the company to meet.Officials at Slate, whose Canadian headquarters are in Toronto, declined a request for an interview.Retailer Wayne Smith says it's eerie to walk through Brunswick Square now. The mall in the centre of Saint John's uptown area has been home to his jewelry store for 28 years, and now he's one of only a handful of tenants left in the three-storey retail part of the complex. "It's so quiet walking through the mall," he said. The list of former tenants is a long one and includes Colwell's men's and women's clothing stores, Perfume's Plus, Hallmark, English Butler, Manchester Shoes, Collectables, Baubles, Paddington Station, Laura Secord and Starbucks. And as of Thursday at 6 p.m., the list includes the Running Room as well.The first-floor food court is a shadow of its pre-pandemic self, with Deluxe French Fries, McDonald's, and Mother Nature's not reopening. Only two vendors remain.With the exception of Cora's restaurant, the third floor is essentially empty. The second floor isn't faring much better. The Bank of Nova Scotia and three retail stores are all that's left. But not all of those who left went out of business. Collectables, Manchester Shoes, and Paddington Station all left for other locations in the last couple of years. The demise of Brunswick Square has been a slow and steady one that predates 2015, when the 508,000-square-foot property was sold by Fortis Properties Corp. — an electric utility holding company — to Slate Asset Management, which describes itself on its website as "a global investment and asset manager, with a bold vision to re-imagine the potential of properties, markets or opportunities that others overlook." Smith said he saw the decline coming long before Slate took over, but the change of ownership seems to have accelerated it, while the pandemic sealed the deal. Initially, Smith said, he had high hopes that Slate might be able to breathe new life into the mall. "I was a little excited when Slate bought it, because I thought they're going to really do something with the centre. And it just kept getting worse and worse and worse." In its email, Slate said it had invested $20 million in the property over the last three years to improve the hotel and parking garage and "explored other opportunities including relocating City Hall into the space."The company said it also pays levies to support business improvement groups and will continue to work with Opportunities New Brunswick and the province "to bring new entrants into the Saint John market."In addition to high rents, former tenants have complained about Slate's inflexibility regarding hours of operation — some wanted to stay open later to make the most of cruise ship visits, while others wanted to shorten their hours of operation. Smith said he's tried to ask the company about their plans for the mall, but said the company has been evasive. They're "like politicians," he said. "They really don't give you an answer." Darling hasn't gotten any answers from the company either. He said the city has made it clear to Slate that Brunswick Square "needs to be reinvented." And if they're not willing to do that, he said, they should sell to someone who is. "We need a meeting," the mayor said this week on CBC's Information Morning. "We need to understand what the future is of this space, and again, if Slate, for a variety of reasons, isn't interested in investing further or reinventing, then perhaps they're interested in selling this off to someone who can."Darling said the company hasn't appeared willing to meet with city officials. Since the property isn't derelict, the city's options are limited."We cannot find solutions without the owner being at the table, and that's why we're going to continue to reach out and get their people with our people, as they say, so we can try to move something ahead."Tough time for urban mallsDavid Soberman, a professor of marketing at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, said Brunswick Square isn't the only mall suffering these days. He said malls have been negatively impacted by big box stores and online shopping. Add to that a pandemic that wiped out regular foot traffic and tourism, and things are pretty grim. Soberman said urban malls like Brunswick Square have been particularly hard hit, since they rely on the patronage of people who work nearby and find it convenient to run errands through the day. When all of those people went to work from home, businesses really suffered. Since it's in the company's best interest to operate at full capacity, Soberman said it's unlikely that Slate is being deliberately absent from discussions."Once the pandemic is behind us, something will happen, because it's not in equilibrium for such a beautiful space like that to sit empty," he said. "Even if it's repurposed to become commercial space or residential space. That's better than if it actually sits empty."Re-inventing the mallSome have suggested that Brunswick Square would be an ideal location for a grocery store, since one doesn't currently exist in the uptown. Others have suggested it shouldn't be a mall at all, and that the University of New Brunswick Saint John campus could expand into the space. Smith said the location is perfect for a casino — an adjacent hotel, another nearby, and close to the water, restaurants, galleries, the Imperial Theatre, and lots of interesting shops.The possibilities are endless and have been tossed around for years. But like the former Canadian Coast Guard site not far away, no one has been willing to pick up the ball and run with it. Soberman said he's not surprised that Slate officials aren't surfacing during the pandemic with a plan to revitalize Brunswick Square. He said it doesn't make any sense to come up with a plan until the fallout from the pandemic is known. In the meantime, the mall is likely to continue to lose tenants and Slate will have a tough time to attract new ones. "It's pretty hard to find a business and say, 'Please come to this mall now. There's nobody going through it and most of the mall is closed, but we'd like you to open a store here.' This isn't really a very appealing offer to a retailer, even if the rent is very, very attractive."As for the mayor's invitation to Slate to sell the company to someone willing to help reinvent the space, Soberman said the golden rule of asset management is to "buy low, sell high," and that just isn't going to happen right now. While not ideal for impatient city officials and nervous tenants, Soberman said everyone will likely have to wait a while to find out what the company has planned for Saint John's uptown mall.A storied locationThe site of Brunswick Square has a storied history and was, at one time, home to Manchester Robertson Allison, more commonly known as MRA's. The department store closed in 1973 after 107 years in business and the entire block was razed to make way for Brunswick Square, which was completed in 1976. In a 1958 Macleans magazine article, MRA's was described as "a sprawling emporium with forty-five departments" that opened in 1866. The article said many people "associate MRA's with the shopping excursions of their youth — with clothes and gifts bought for memorable occasions.People were also very sentimental about the store and "they can't imagine it changing." The general manager in 1958 said people complain when a department is redecorated. Lloyd Macdonald told the magazine at the time, "We could never modernize completely in one step. The public wouldn't let us."The article goes on to say that the store offers "the most up-to-date goods, which is typical of King Street, where the old and new are shuffled, the past blends with the present, and memories mix with hopes."Former city councillor and MLA Gerry Lowe still has hope for the complex. He said the company would not have just invested millions of dollars for renovations on the parking garage and hotel if they weren't planning on sticking around. But he expressed concern when the complex was sold in 2015. He said it would be devastating to uptown businesses if the city lost Brunswick Square. He's saddened by the current state of the mall."It's sad when you walk through it, and it's just store after store, floor after floor that's vacant. And the hotel, it's quiet, naturally. So many things where people would be drawn to that complex for retail is empty."