Bowdeya Tweh reports:
Black paper covers rows of store windows. The hallways are often half-empty. And despite banners proclaiming shoppers should “expect great things,” little of that seems to be happening at Tri-County Mall.
About one of every four storefronts is empty at the mall that once was a premier regional shopping draw. Dillard’s, a venerable department store, is now a clearance center, where sales are final on unsold merchandise from full-line stores at a 65 percent discount.
Perhaps more telling: The property worth nearly $180 million to buyers in 2005 was sold for $45 million to new mall owners at a Hamilton County sheriff’s sale in July.
“It’s sad for me to go there now and see the skeleton being picked,” said Cynthia Supe, a West Chester Township resident who worked in the mall in the mid-1970s and regularly shopped there for more than two decades.
New mall owner SingHaiyi Group Ltd. has been working quietly for months on plans to help return the shopping center to retail pre-eminence.
Springdale city officials, mall representatives and retail analysts say it could have a viable future. But first, the more than 5-decade-old mall will have to shed its outdated features, and officials must reach a consensus on what its future holds.
The site could be redeveloped to have outward-facing retail shops, more office space, even a hotel, the experts say. The bottom line is to get more tenants in the structure to draw more visitors and shoppers.
Jeff Tulloch, Springdale’s economic development director, said SingHaiyi (sing-HIGH-uh) and its affiliates are working through a significant transition of mall operations including bringing tenant leasing in-house.
Tulloch said he’s been impressed with the Singapore-based company’s approach, although he wishes things could happen faster.
“You need to have capital to redevelop the mall, and there’s no question” it needs to be redeveloped, Tulloch said.
SingHaiyi officials did not respond to several calls and email messages from The Enquirer seeking comment for this story.
Tri-County still key retail area
Opened in 1960, the mall at 11700 Princeton Pike was a major shopping destination in Greater Cincinnati for decades.
Tri-County is still one of the largest shopping malls in the region with nearly 1.3 million square feet of retail space, bigger than the 1.1 million square feet at Kenwood Towne Centre in Sycamore Township.
Macy’s, Dillard’s, Sears and Ethan Allen serve as the mall’s anchors, and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse and Ruby Tuesday can draw big dining crowds. Macy’s, which owns its own space, is operating business as usual.
In the early days, Shillito’s, H&S Pogue and Kroger were part of the original open-air venue. The mall was enclosed in the early 1970s in keeping with retail trends at the time, and it went through a major expansion and renovation that began in the late 1980s.
“It had always been that way until the growth in Mason and West Chester (and) the three interchanges north on I-75” pulled retail traffic away, said Andrew Sellet, a local Cassidy Turley retail analyst.
Since the mid- to late-1990s, the mall has been losing market share to newer shopping venues such as Cincinnati Premium Outlets in Monroe, Bridgewater Falls in Fairfield Township and Voice of America Centre in West Chester Township.
Less than 10 miles north of Tri-County, developers want to build a $325 million mixed-use lifestyle center called Liberty Center. Columbus-based Steiner + Associates and Chicago-based Bucksbaum Retail Properties say they have a commitment from Dillard’s to be an anchor tenant.
The wealth profile of the Tri-County area isn’t dramatically different from Kenwood, either.
The average household income in the five-mile area around the mall is $71,785, about $8,000 less than the area around Kenwood, according to Nielsen demographic data analyzed by The Enquirer.
The Tri-County area also is expected to see slight growth in its population and average household income through 2018.
Still, only 112 tenants are operating at the mall, which has space for more than 150. Based on total retail square footage available, the mall says it has 86.5 percent of retail spaces leased.
Some tenants counted as current, however, are paying rent on long-term leases on space that’s been closed up. Landlords are happy to take the rent but would prefer the stores be open. A closed space – especially if there are lots of them – has a strong psychological impact on other retailers and shoppers, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers.
Some longtime shoppers cite another reason for Tri-County’s decline: a policy instituted in 2010 that required people under age 18 to be escorted by a parent or adult guardian after 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Although the rule was developed after mall officials fielded years of complaints about kids loitering or being raucous in the mall, it deterred many young people from visiting. It also didn’t work to get more adult shoppers back.
“That’s why they lost a lot of business because they’ve got so many rules, and I guess people don’t feel safe,” said Jamie Hamilton, 30, of Lockland.
Real estate expert: Renewing mall won’t happen quickly
Today, SingHaiyi Group Ltd. has a 65 percent ownership stake in Tri-County. Controlling shareholders of the firm own Portland, Ore.-based American Pacific International Capital Inc., which bought the mall last year.
The SingHaiyi deal closed Dec. 13.
In a September news release, SingHaiyi said Tri-County Mall would be its first U.S. property transaction.
SingHaiyi Chairman Neil Bush said the company bought the mall at a deep discount and sees it as a “revenue-generating” investment opportunity. Neil Bush is a brother of former U.S. President George W. Bush.
“We will try to bring more tenants, and talks are underway for a few potential tenants,” Bush said in the September statement.
It isn’t surprising that much hasn’t happened since the summer purchase announcement, said Scott Saddlemire, principal of Sycamore Township-based OnSite Retail Group, a commercial real estate brokerage. He said it will take time, care and money.
Keith Yearout, who leads CBRE’s Private Capital Group in Cincinnati, speculated that the owners are experiencing difficulties in getting commitments not only from new tenants but existing ones as well.
Getting occupancy closer to and above 90 percent will likely be a top goal of the new mall management, said Tron of the International Council of Shopping Centers. He said mall operators should think about bringing unique dining, entertainment and service attractions to their venues.
“You can’t be a collection of stores anymore,” Tron said. “You have to create experiences for customers.”
Liberty Center’s developers are expected to announce more retailers landing at the venue in the next few weeks.
Tri-County Dillard’s is in the process of becoming a clearance center for discounted merchandise from front-line stores. In the past few months, the Dillard’s Tri-County store has been liquidating merchandise and fixtures ranging from shirts and skirts to towels and tables. A store once packed with items now operates in a shell of a space with a smaller crew.
Dillard’s spokeswoman Julie Bull declined to comment about the retailer’s plans, except to say that its clearance status at Tri-County is not a forerunner to closing completely.
New plans gauged for Tri-County
Tulloch, the Springdale official, is optimistic that the mall’s fortunes can be reversed.
If Dillard’s were to leave, Tulloch said the space could be repositioned for offices. tore could be repositioned as office space. The space would need an overhaul but with the amount of available parking, it could be desirable for a company seeking to accommodate employees. He noted that the mall’s owners also develop hotels.
Tron also said a regional mall may find new life as a “power center,” which is basically a collection of big box stores in one area such as Target, Walmart, Home Depot and Best Buy.
Yearout said the mall and surrounding area may be able to compete as a discount retail hub. Standout office tenants may be difficult for the mall with a larger concentration of companies occupying spaces around West Chester and Blue Ash.
While mall retail still exists and can be successful, it will be difficult to attract them as in years past to an underutilized building in dire need to rehabilitation. Many retailers are trending to fill smaller spaces and are seeking to be closer to shoppers.
“It has another life as something slightly different,” Yearout said. “What do you do with it, it’s not exactly cut and dried.”
It may not be the friendliest activity, but Sellet said one way Tri-County could bolster its activity by pulling retailers from around Forest Park or at Forest Fair Village, the more than 25-year-old struggling shopping center sandwiched between Tri-County and Northgate Mall in Colerain Township.
Hamilton of Lockland said she does most of her shopping for clothes and shoes online because the stores in Tri-County aren’t popular with her and other shoppers. The key for her to return: Stores that sell more fashionable threads.
“I would go back to Tri-County in a heart beat (but) there’s just no store that I want to shop at there any more,” Supe said.
“It was a good place to hang out,” said Hamilton, who recalls hanging out at the mall as a teen.