Expect Southern Park improvements before 2020 anniversary, CEO tells Vindy


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VINDY EXCLUSIVE

By Jessica Hardin

jhardin@vindy.com

BOARDMAN

Washington Prime Group CEO Lou Conforti wants people who come to Southern Park Mall to think: “This is home.”

From an aesthetic perspective, the property – with its drab beige exterior and dim lighting – has a long way to go.

Conforti agrees. As he walked the Washington Prime Group-owned mall Wednesday night, he pointed to two wooden benches positioned next to a charging station outside a store.

“This, to me, is not acceptable,” Conforti said with disdain.

He looked at the floor, disgusted by the “long swaths of poopy brown carpeting.”

“Physical retail became lazy and reactive. ... We became rent collectors. We didn’t think about curation,” Conforti said.

His strategy for revitalizing properties such as Southern Park Mall is two-pronged and involves a hybrid physical concept and what Conforti calls “common area activation.”

Common area activation requires injecting life into every part of the property.

For example, while walking around Southern Park Mall, Conforti was upset by temporary white walls erected around a closed storefront.

“Get the high school students to paint a mural,” he said.

As for the physical concept, Washington Prime Group is renovating properties to include both open-air space and enclosed space.

“People love enclosed space, but they also want one-stop shopping,” Conforti explained.

Conforti, who is from Chicago, also wants the mall to be the site of recurring events such as fitness classes and movie nights.

He plans to enact this strategy by tapping into the local community and involving Youngstown¹s students, artists, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs.

“You guys should be the arbiters of what’s interesting here,” Conforti said.

For the greater Youngstown community, that might include a bocce court and an outpost of a local craft brewery at the mall, he said.

In light of the Valley’s recent barrage of negative economic news, Conforti wants the community to know that changes at the mall are nothing like the closure of GM Lordstown. “Charlotte Russe is not going out of business because of Youngstown. They’re going out of business nationally. They are going out of business because they were [expletive] merchandisers,” he said.

Similarly, he explained that Sears was an unproductive tenant, and Dillards is exiting the market nationally.

“Southern Park Mall has amazing bones and legacy. We’re not going anywhere,” Conforti said.

At this point in the process, Conforti is short on public details, but he promised that incremental changes will be visible soon.

He met with the Boardman Township trustees on Wednesday afternoon.

“The 50th anniversary of the mall is next April [2020]. We’ll do things before that,” Conforti said.

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