John Gibson said the Augusta-based mall operators have a bit of a different philosophy when it comes to kiosks and other areas in the halls of their malls.
“What we find, or believe, is that those kiosks are not healthy for the mall,” Gibson said. “They’re visual blockers, so that when I walk down a property, I can’t see the other stores, and more importantly, I can’t see the other people. Second, those kiosks are often times siphoning off just that marginal sale that an in-line store would otherwise make, and the in-line store really is the heart of the mall.”
Gibson said that if one were to review the portfolio of 21 enclosed malls that Hull Storey Gibson operates across eight states, then one would see that they have systematically eliminated kiosks.
“If we have them it’s because they have a lease term that we couldn’t terminate,” said Gibson. “Same thing with all the vending machines — the vending machines will go. Our food court is not fully occupied, and why would you be selling Cokes and competing with your tenants?”
Gibson also said the carousel at the primary mall entrance is also likely to go.
“A final decision has not been made, but in all likelihood, if we have had those in the past we have taken those out and looked at alternative soft play areas,” Gibson said. “The No. 1 reason for addressing kiosks, carousels and other areas like that is to increase the visibility up and down the mall so people can see other people. We think that improves the experience.”
Abeed Bawa, who has operated the Dawg House T-shirt kiosk in the mall for 14 years, said that thus far, no one has indicated that his two kiosks will be impacted by the proposed changes. Bawa said that if he has to move he’d kind of like a piece of the former Gap store, and at the very least, stay at the southern end of the mall.
The Guest Services desk, which sat between Knight’s Jewelers and The Lid, has already been removed.
Gibson said Hull Storey Gibson had been looking at the Rome mall for six or seven years and feels it is a good property.
Examining the scope of the entire retail market in Rome, Gibson said it was remarkably fragmented as compared to markets of a similar size. He cited Walmarts on either side of the city, the strong downtown market, and the Hicks Drive and Riverbend complex.
One of the things Hull Storey Gibson would like to see happen is the creation of a more concentrated shopping area in the vicinity of Mount Berry Square.
“We will be talking to our neighbors, looking at the infrastructure, but our hope would be the mall and the surrounding area there could be developed into more retail and develop some level of concentration in that area,” Gibson said.
When Hull Story Gibson bought the mall they got 92 acres of property, essentially everything within the perimeter road that encircles the mall building itself. All of the major out parcels were sold off through the years.
He said that during the next six months to a year, the company would study the market, meet with the retailers and put together a redevelopment plan.
“It could involve demolition of shop space, it may not involve any demolition, it really depends on the level of interest that we’re able to generate,” Gibson said. “An unoccupied building we think is a big negative and if we can’t lease it I think we’re better off demo’ing it.”
Gibson said the key to success in the enclosed mall business involves having the right mix of retailers.
“I do think it gives our friends in the retail business some comfort when they know they’re dealing with a well capitalized company. We’re pros, this is what we do,” Gibson said. “We’re committed for the long term and I think it gives those retailers some comfort when they’re going to make a long term investment as well. I think it makes them very uncomfortable when a property is in transition, and really the mall in Rome has effectively been in transition for years. It has not had a committed owner-operator.”
Officials with Hull Storey Gibson will be at the International Council of Shopping Centers meeting in Atlanta later this week pitching Mount Berry Square to retailers.
“It isn’t so much that it’s a failed mall as much as it is the market itself just doesn’t have that many people,” Gibson said.
The company is pinning its chance to turn around the mall, which has never been 100-percent occupied, on its experience in similar sized markets across the Southeast. “It is a very challenging business, but that’s our focus,” Gibson said. “It’s a year-round effort.”