Seven weeks ago, Tom Phillips opened a Sports Mania store at Regency Square Mall, the struggling Arlington shopping center that spiraled below 40 percent occupancy before it was sold in February.
Now, six months after the landmark but struggling regional mall was sold to a New York ownership group for just $13 million, Phillips champions the efforts to revitalize the property and challenges the community to help.
“People have to say, we’re going to have to take back our neighborhood, we’re going to have to take back our mall,” he said Wednesday morning, a rainy, overcast day with a sparse number of mall shoppers.
“People have to decide they want their mall back,” he said.
Phillips disputes perceptions of crime at the 47-year-old mall. “That is not true,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything here to tell my wife not to come here.”
Phillips, who also owns the Sports Mania at the Landing, said management has cleaned up Regency, with security discouraging potential trouble.
He acknowledges the once bustling mall doesn’t have the scope of retailers it once had, or that other area shopping centers offer.
“I don’t know that it will ever come back completely,” he said, but he says there are well-known retailers in the center.
In addition to anchors Belk, Sears, a Dillard’s clearance center and JCPenney, tenants include national brands such as Aeropostale, LensCrafters, Wet Seal, Bath & Body Works, GNC, Foot Locker, Kay Jewelers, Spencer, GameStop, f.y.e and Victoria’s Secret.
“There are some good retailers in here,” Phillips said.
Phillips wants area customers to realize they can find convenient and sometimes front-door parking at Regency, which isn’t the case at some of the newer and busier centers.
“If they have the store that you want and the store has what you want, there’s no reason to go anywhere else,” he wants Arlington area shoppers to know.
He has a point. A woman and her college-age daughter shopped Friday at Victoria’s Secret. The mother, who declined to be identified, said she typically doesn’t shop at Regency, instead heading to St. Johns Town Center.
She said she might return, however, “out of convenience.”
Speaking of convenience, Phillips wants shoppers to know that Sports Mania, which sells sports apparel, especially college and NFL apparel and gifts, will open at 10 a.m. on Sundays for Jacksonville Jaguars home games. The stadium is 6 miles across the Mathews Bridge from Regency Square.
Phillips also makes another point. He said the fear of crime drives away good customers, regardless of diversity. With a cleaned-up mall, he wants good customers — from all diverse backgrounds — to return.
“The hardest thing is to change perception,” he said. “It just takes time.”
City Council President Clay Yarborough, who represents Arlington area District 1, said he was excited about the planned opening of more stores over the next month at Regency.
“The new owner seems highly motivated to transform the mall back into a competitive, viable community asset,” Yarborough said.
Retailers coming and going; space to fill
Mall management shares Phillips’ goal to entice customers back, but it’s clear it has a lot of space to fill. Owners Mason Asset Management and Namdar Realty Group LLC say the mall has 1.39 million square feet of total leasable area.
To help manage that, ownership decided to consolidate as much retail as possible into the East Mall, which is anchored on one end by Belk and other by JCPenney.
Manager Jim Kramer said Wednesday the East Mall now is about 85 percent occupied. “We’re down to eight spaces left on the east side of the mall to lease,” he said.
In June, Kramer and administrative assistant Sondra Anderson said they were working with 15 new leases and that a dozen could open by Aug. 15, which was Friday.
That’s pretty much on track, although most of the new tenants are small, local operations rather than national chains.
The Latin Salon, Cherish Couture, Modern Furniture, Barber Emporium and NY Pizza recently opened. Captain O’s is opening soon in the food court and a sports bar and restaurant is interested in the former arcade space. Boost Mobile, a national presence, has opened.
Kramer and Anderson said other new retailers opening soon will be the Grab ‘n Go hot dog and hamburger spot, which leaves two spaces left in the food court for lease.
Inside the mall, Cherish Kidz, a clothing store, should open soon. With outside entrances to the mall, a comedy club could open in October in the former Boater’s World space and a men’s and boys’ sportswear store could open near that.
In the West Mall, the Torch Bearers Church could open in October.
Other recently opened retailers include 5 Bucks or Less, which just received another shipment of close-out wine, including some well-known brands, that sell for $3 each or four for $10; Champaint 777, the Anointed Creations wine-and-canvas painting venue; Hair Bar & Accessories; and Rogers Jewelers. And, the children’s train is back in service.
To reach the neighborhood, Kramer and Anderson, who is the community relations coordinator, want to focus on community events and nonprofit support. Holidays will be celebrated.
They’ve said December and holiday shopping will be a big determinant of the mall’s success in its attempts to boost visibility and sales.
Not all stores are staying
A big question concerns Belk, which bridges the East and West Malls. A new Belk is expected to open in March a few miles east at Atlantic and Kernan boulevards.
Charlotte-based Belk has not said how the Regency store will be affected and a spokeswoman said last week she had no additional information.
That could affect mall retailers, like Blue Stone jewelry, which is near the Belk entrance.
While Sports Mania and other retailers offer optimism, Blue Stone, which opened at Regency four years ago and has another store at The Avenues mall, will close Sunday.
Blue Stone owner Mohammed Biswas declined comment.
Kramer said Belk’s lease expires next year and he has not been notified of its intentions.
Should Belk leave, he said management would look for a replacement tenant.
Veteran and returning retailers optimistic
Regency Health Foods, which opened at Regency Square Mall in 1976, has a distinct view of the mall.
Store manager Thom Garza said Friday afternoon he has seen an improvement in attitude and morale at the mall, and notes its importance to Arlington, one of the city’s first suburbs.
“There’s a possibility this could be a renaissance,” he said.
Sales associate Craig Jenkins said a lot of people in his generation – late 20s, early 30s — are looking for homes.
Arlington “holds a lot of promise” for his cohorts, he said. Home prices are affordable and the location is minutes from Downtown. The site at 9501 Arlington Expressway makes it easily accessible to the Beaches, Southside and North Jacksonville thanks to Atlantic Boulevard, Southside Boulevard and the Interstate 295 East Beltway.
Jenkins said new owners are making an effort.
“It’s definitely an improvement,” he said, citing new retailers, a larger but “less blatant” security presence, and more customers, especially on Saturdays.
Friday and Saturday afternoon’s traffic was noticeably larger than Wednesday’s.
Jenkins also notes that the shoppers now are “a better-dressed class of people.”
Jenkins and Garza said Namdar Realty seems to be much more invested than General Growth Properties, which sold the mall.
General Growth Properties went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2009 and 2010. By February 2013, General Growth said Regency Square had been “transferred to the special servicer,” which was trying to renegotiate the loan on the property.
Garza said that as a result, the East Mall in particular, which is the original mall, needs roofing, plumbing and electrical improvements. “The challenge now is infrastructure,” he said.
Owners haven’t yet invested in major upgrades.
Garza, whose family holds deep roots in Arlington, said the mall is very much a part of the community.
“That’s why it has to make it,” he said. “Arlington’s not dead. Arlington is very much alive.”
Regency Square opened in 1967 as the area’s first major regional shopping area outside of Downtown.
The center doubled in size in 1981-82, adding the West Mall, and added more space in the early 1990s.
Another East Mall tenant, 5 Bucks or Less, is a returning enterprise. Store manager Corey Young said the company had a dollar store in the West Mall near Dillard’s that closed three years ago.
“It was a ghost town,” she said.
5 Bucks opened four months ago near JCPenney. Young said mall managers asked her to return. “It’s a lot better,” she said.
While sales could be better, traffic is up. “New stores are coming in all the time,” she said. “Pretty much everybody is happier that they want to do something with the mall.”
West Mall incubator
Owners wanted to focus on filling up the East Mall and decide later on the largely vacant West Mall, but Kramer said that changed about two weeks ago.
The new game plan is to start leasing space from Belk west to Sears – including creating a kind of retail incubator.
Kramer said the mall could lease spaces from $1,500 to $2,500 a month, plus utilities, for up to a year as an enticement to join the West Mall. He said space sizes range from 1,000 to 5,000 square feet.
“Try it for a year,” he said. “Test-market your product or concept.”
He said one of the new tenants could be open by October.
The West Mall has just four retailers – Sears, the Dillard’s Clearance Center, Regis Hair Salon and GNC. The children’s play area is there too.
Sears and Dillard’s own their buildings.
In addition, Kramer said a restaurant-bar is interested in the West Mall.
Kramer welcomes traditional and nontraditional retailers, such as the church, to the mall.
“That’s the fun,” he said.