By JESSICA HARDIN
Washington Prime Group CEO Lou Conforti hates the word “mall.”
The word evokes memories of asymmetrical ear piercings inside of Claire’s, the image of black sheep tweens dragging their parents into Hot Topic and the unmistakable scent of cinnamon sugar soft pretzels mingling with Abercrombie and Fitch body spray.
The mall, Conforti alleges, has failed to curate an experience for all its visitors.
Consequently, the soundtrack of suburbs across the country is the death rattle of the American mall.
Last year and the year before, more than 10,000 stores closed, said Business Insider website. The scythe of the retail apocalypse spared no one, but is felt most when anchor stores shutter. In 2017 and 2018, Sears, Macy’s and JCPenney closed 380 stores.
The shuttering of department stores can be a loss from which malls don’t recover.
Credit Suisse predicted that 20 to 25 percent of 2017’s approximately 1,100 American malls will close by 2022.
Washington Prime Group, the Columbus-based company that owns Southern Park Mall, posits that, in the shell of the mall, something else can thrive.
“We want to be the town center,” said Matt Jurkowitz, vice president of development at WPG.
WPG argues that, similar to a city, the mall can provide common space and entertainment, in addition to retail. The mall can increase the vibrancy of local business and give community groups space to thrive. Like a city, the mall can reflect its community with art installations from local students or by opening the region’s favorite brewery.
This notion is embodied in the rendering WPG exclusively shared with The Vindicator. WPG plans to replace the former Sears with green space that will be a venue for community events and activities.
“All throughout our portfolio, we’re focusing on those things. And we’re certainly focusing on bringing that holistic approach to Southern Park Mall,” Jurkowitz said.
Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus and Great Lakes Mall in Mentor exhibit similar themes that put WPG’s overall renovation strategy on display and provide useful analogies to changes we can expect at Southern Park.
The “mall” concept reviled by Conforti has a single purpose – to provide multiple retail experiences in one place. WPG seeks to diversify the purpose of the mall by transforming its centers into event spaces and attracting tenants that sell experiences.
Though Great Lakes is 40 years older than Polaris, both centers debuted anchored by department stores. The bankruptcies of Sears and Kaufmann’s offered opportunities to expand the definition of the term “anchor tenant.”
WPG opted to fill the spaces at each mall with large-scale family-friendly entertainment venues. Dave and Buster’s filled part of the space left by Kaufmann’s at Polaris in 2007. Great Lakes filled a former Dillard’s space with Ohio’s first Round1, an entertainment center with an arcade and bowling alley, in 2018.
Department stores “are not as relevant as they used to be, so that’s opportunity for us to bring in something new, different, exciting,” said Kate Miller, area marketing director.
WPG has also diversified anchors by including practical nonretail tenants such as Planet Fitness in the Sears wing at Great Lakes.
“It feeds into servicing people and their needs whether they be retail related or not retail related. To drive that daily traffic. We want to be the place where you hit not once a month, but once or twice a week or more,” Jurkowitz said.
Eastwood Mall Complex, Southern Park’s Trumbull County counterpart owned by The Cafaro Co., takes the idea a step further with the inclusion of a grocery store, an auto repair shop and even places of worship.
Another particularly successful strategy for injecting life into the mall has been beefing up each center’s event schedule. With events, WPG invites guests to re-imagine what can take place at the mall.
Miller hosts more than 60 events per year at Great Lakes. One of them is Heroes’ Day.
“We celebrate our local police, fire and veterans. We open it up with a color guard ceremony, the pledge of allegiance. We have seven or eight different cities represented. So they bring their fire trucks, all their fun toys, and the kids get to explore and there’s food and music,” Miller said.
While Southern Park lags in visible signs of investment, it does have a robust event schedule. With the planned outdoor development, we can anticipate activities of a larger scale.
WPG has leveraged its relationship with Youngstown State University to establish regular events such as “Walk with a Doc,” which takes place on the last Thursday of each month.
“We’re looking to evolve that program ... it’s an opportunity for some of our mall-walkers to come in and meet with a doctor, get blood pressure readings, nutrition consultation. It shows that we’re willing to bring people into the centers to further their mission,” said Hilary Marshall, director of experiential marketing at WPG.
But, without exploring Southern Park’s website, knowledge of these events isn’t accessible, in contrast to the advertising strategy at work at Eastwood Mall.
Eastwood’s emphasis on a thematic logo and ads on television reflect an understanding of the unique media market in Youngstown.
“Youngstown’s a little different,” said Joe Bell, Cafaro Co. spokesman. “It doesn’t have the same digital media saturation. People tend to be a little more conservative and stick with other forms. It’s important to make sure we adjust our media strategy based on the type of community where we’re advertising,” Bell said.
At Polaris, a structure outside of Baby Gap looks like the office of a start-up company.
Mid-century chairs covered in hazelnut-colored leather surround a table topped with a slab of reclaimed wood.
WPG relies on spaces like this, branded as “the Hub,” to create public space on private properties.
Designating spaces at the mall for shoppers to sit and charge their phones isn’t a new concept, but WPG expands on the idea with “common area activation.”
The phrase, which Conforti describes as the “holy grail of the industry,” involves injecting excitement into common space and using it as a marketing tool.
The Hub at Polaris is the result of a partnership with a local co-working start-up called Co-Hatch.
Marshall referred to the Hub at Polaris as an “evolved Hub,” which is clear given that the Hub at Great Lakes consists of chairs arranged in a circle on a carpet. What will presumably be Southern Park’s “Hub” is currently a table with high chairs and a power strip.
The Hub is a space in WPG malls where management can meet, where tenants can conduct interviews and where kids can do homework.
“It’s getting a lot of usage,” Miller said.
In keeping with the thematic public space concept, WPG conceived of “The Yard.”
The Yard is WPG’s idea for bringing play to the center, Marshall said.
“Lou [Conforti] was doing a property visit and was really interested about the entrance of Dick’s Sporting Goods, went in, bought a couple of basketball hoops and saw what happened. People started playing and that’s how The Yard was born,” Marshall said.
Polaris’ Yard is situated outside on a strip of turf and features massive Lego blocks.
A Yard recently popped up at Southern Park near the former entrance of Sears, complete with life-size board games and a ping-pong table,
The genesis of The Yard at Southern Park foreshadows the incremental pace of change at the center.
“A lot of these things aren’t going to wait for a larger format redevelopment. We want to take advantage of incremental improvements even before some of the larger format things that are going to be coming. When it comes to the hub or some of those other elements, you’ll see those rolling out sooner rather than later,” Jurkowitz said.
LOCAL BUSINESS INCUBATOR
In the center of the food court at Polaris stands a glass enclosure with a white frame and the word “Tangible” spelled across the door frame.
Inside, multiple online companies pander their wares on Tangible’s shelves. Marshall calls Tangible “where online meets offline.”
“It’s really an incubator and a hub for online businesses to have a brick and mortar space without having some of the operational hurdles that a young company might not be able to otherwise overcome. ... It really demonstrates how we understand that the consumer journey is evolving and we continue to evolve with it,” Marshall said.
It takes the risk out of online shopping by giving shoppers the opportunity to interact with online products before purchasing them.
Shoppers can order products they like from an iPad in Tangible and have it shipped to their homes.
Currently at Polaris, Tangible showcases companies selling kids clothing, curated-care packages, weighted blankets and scented soap for men.
“We’re always looking for local flavor and giving local businesses the opportunity to try themselves out in a mall setting. ... We really want to make sure we’re diversifying our retailer mix and always offering something new and exciting to our visitors, because that’s what’s going to keep them coming back,” said Miller.
Eleventh Candle, a Columbus-based candle company operating in a kiosk at Polaris, launched through Tangible.
Small-business incubation is less developed at Great Lakes, where multiple empty kiosk advertise “pop-up” opportunities.
But, both sites are the homes to local and regional franchises.
Polaris opened Columbus-based Future of Design, a custom printer, and the Daily Growler, a brewery. Great Lakes opened Mentor-based Busy Bees, a pottery painting shop, and Love’s Play Learn & Create, a day care.
Thirty-one of WPG’s 106 properties are located in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio.
WPG’s regional focus gives its team the latitude to recruit local businesses and help them grow.
“We’re trying to grow [Future of Design] through the Midwest. Why we’re regionally based is for reasons just like that. We want to incubate tenants and grow them throughout the region. They’re one example,” said Lauren Kelly, senior vice president of leasing at WPG.
Community partnerships are on display at Great Lakes around every corner.
Signs fillings the windows at the mall’s entrance advertise Lake Health’s mission to care for the community.
Upside-down umbrellas featuring student designs dangle from the ceiling as part of a project spearheaded by Lake/Geauga Educational Assistance Foundation.
Even the Easter Bunny is sitting in a garden constructed by students from a local technical school.
“It’s just about relationships,” Miller explained.
In order to build these relationships, Miller talks about hitting the pavement – talking to shoppers, going to chamber of commerce meetings and doing research on social media.
One project in particular would go over well in Boardman. When renovating one of the entrances to Great Lakes in 2014 and 2015, mall management partnered with quasi-governmental agencies to complete a stormwater project in the parking lot.
The project reflects how WPG sees itself vis-a-vis the communities surrounding its centers: the mall’s success is tied to the community’s success.
These relationships are clearly in the works: WPG met with Boardman trustees in March. The bulk of current discussions pertain to zoning.
“I think they look at it like a partnership and they said that, ‘We want to partner with you to make sure we’re doing things that are in compliance that we’re matching what the community wants and needs.’ That’s huge,” said Jason Loree, Boardman township administrator.
THE FUTURE OF SOUTHERN PARK
The renderings of the Southern Park’s redevelopment and the changes at Polaris and Great Lakes offer insight into what Southern Park might look like in five years.
“The 50th anniversary of the mall is next April. We’ll do things before that,” Conforti said.
Of course, Polaris, which is located outside of Columbus, has the benefit of a wealthier constituency. The average household income of families within 10 miles of the center is $100,050.
For Great Lakes, that number is $76,987. For Southern Park, that number is $58,888.
But, WPG assures it’s confident that Southern Park’s sales can support the investment it is planning.
“Southern Park is not the next thing to go. It’s a tier one asset for WPG,” Jurkowitz said.
In addition to creating an outdoor venue, the drawings reveal plans to further connect indoor and outdoor space with external entrances and dining patios.
“At Southern Park, we’re talking about the food court area and flipping spaces inside out. That very front entrance by the food court, that’s our best entrance. To flip it inside out, have patios out there, so when you’re walking into the entrance, you have activity and people hanging out,” said Kelly.
The interior aesthetics of the property are clearly a priority for WPG. The group is planning updates “that are going to help people feel the space is more current, certainly brighter, more inviting,” Jurkowitz said.
On the subject of Southern Park’s lighting, which is notoriously drab, Jurkowitz said, “It’s a priority for us.”
If everything goes according to WPG’s plan, injecting life into the mall will inject life into Youngstown.
“Certainly we see ourselves as part of the long-term solution to some of the things that are happening. If you say to yourself, ‘We want to be the town center,’ then you have to be part of the solution. I know it sounds like just words, but for us, it’s material,” Jurkowitz said.