The mall isn’t passe, it’s nostalgic

If you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, the mall was the place to be.

Back in their heyday, shopping malls replaced town squares in American life. That was where you were most likely to run into your neighbors, pick up what you needed or just go hang out.

In the mornings senior citizens walked those long concourses; at night the kids cruised them. Remember the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High?” The mall was cool then. But that was 30 years ago, and times change fast.

The Citadel Mall is now facing foreclosure, and some people are worried about the West Ashley institution. Basically, the owner missed some mortgage payments and the bank repossessed the 1.1-million-square-foot, $24-million shopping center. The court has appointed a real estate management group to run the mall in the interim.

This is nothing unusual. Malls across the country are in trouble, have been for years. Nowadays folks prefer the big-box stores, outdoor shopping centers like Towne Centre or Tanger, or they shop on the Internet.

Shopping habits are always evolving. Main Street has made a comeback, and the malls now have the boarded up windows. It’s turnabout.

But don’t count out Citadel Mall yet.

You see, times change.

Drifting demographics

On Thursday afternoon, there were enough folks at Citadel Mall that you had to stand in line for a cheesesteak at Charley’s. At 2 p.m.

There were folks eating in the food court, sitting on the benches in the main hall and browsing in the department stores. Target, as usual, was jumping, even if a lot of the other interior stores were largely devoid of shoppers.

The seniors still walk in the morning, the kids still come in the evening. There’s just not as many of them anymore.

Phil Alldredge, the general manager, tells folks not to worry. This foreclosure is actually a harbinger of improvements at Citadel Mall. See, the lenders will either hire a management group to run the place or they will sell it to new owners. The best way to sell it is to fix it up, take care of some deferred maintenance, and get some new tenants in there.

Shutting the doors is no way to recoup an investment.

“There’s not an issue with the mall closing,” Alldredge says. “The mall is not closing.”

Since the recession kicked in, and probably even a little before it, the vacancy rate in malls around the country has hovered around 9 percent.

Citadel Mall doesn’t say what its vacancy rate is, but it’s probably in the teens. There are 17 shuttered storefronts at the moment, and about 80 businesses operating in there.

Alldredge, who’s been in commercial real estate for 30 years, says all of this is cyclical. Demographics change, shopping habits change.

“You have to make those changes as you go along or you are no longer viable,” Alldredge says.

And that’s what Citadel Mall will do.

Nostalgia, anyone?

You already can see some differences at the mall. Now there are two exercise facilities and a couple of museums out there, and not a record store to be found. Not like the old days.

Where’s Spencer’s when you need it? Uh, it’s online.

The department stores like Belk, Dillard’s and Sears are doing OK, but they’re all company-owned and not technically mall tenants.

Target has helped Citadel tremendously, but the trick is to get its customers to wander into the rest of the mall.

Citadel Mall has a good location, and that bodes well for its future. If I-526 connects James and Johns islands to West Ashley, the mall will suddenly become more convenient for a lot more shoppers.

In the meantime, the mall is going to try to bring in stores that will attract new customers. Maybe it could use an Apple Store to go along with that Best Buy Mobile. Perhaps a Starbucks. That would make it much cooler for some people. Even trendy.

West Ashley needs Citadel Mall. Who knows, maybe the threat of losing the mall will make folks nostalgic.

Nostalgia always sells. What once was new suddenly is retro. JCPenney is now selling Jimi Hendrix T-shirts.

See, times change.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

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