BAXTER — A revitalized mall with two new stores, an increased tax base, new theater and more jobs is the vision of the new ownership.
Alan Retkinski and Alex Schleider, who formed Westgate Mall Realty Group, recently purchased the mall for $6.8 million from DDR Corp. They met with city officials Tuesday night detailing their plans for the mall, which crosses the city limits of both Brainerd and Baxter.
Two stores, Big Lots and Dunham’s Sports, signed leases to open in the former Kmart, which most recently was home to Steve & Barry’s. Renovation on the space, including a new facade, is expected to begin as early as next week. The stores plan to be open in March. That means additional tax revenue for the city and more jobs, perhaps as many as 50 with the addition of those two stores.
Retkinski said his New Jersey-based company, Lexington Realty International, owns and manages shopping centers and has taken other malls said to be in death spirals and turned them into vibrant destinations again.
When the Westgate Mall came on to the market, Retkinski said they thought it was a perfect fit with other properties they have in the region. He said they did due diligence on the mall for well over a year at a time when the mall went on and then off the market and then on again. With their existing relationships with retailers, Retkinski said they were able to ink deals with Big Lots and Dunham’s Sports.
“It brings life and vibrancy back to the mall here,” Retkinski said.
When those stores open in March, the mall will be at 90 percent occupancy, an increase from the 65 percent current occupancy. Big Lots is taking about 32,000 square feet and Dunham’s Sports is taking about 33,000 square feet. The mall will be left with 20,000 square feet to lease and Retkinski said there are letters of intent from other interested tenants. One, the new owners said, is a tenant that previously left the mall but has expressed an interest in coming back.
For the new mall owners, those things will fall into place but it has to start with a vision. “We like to dream,” Retkinski said, adding they wanted to take the model for revitalizing other malls and bring that to the Westgate. He said he believes the mall will be at 100 percent occupancy in short order.
A major part of the excitement factor is expected to come through the description new mall owners provided of the theater’s plans to build a new stadium-seating theater by the mall. Plans are for a 12-screen multiplex.
“We feel that will drive a lot of traffic,” Schleider said, noting it will create options for combined marketing, such as a meal and movie discount, and bring more people to the mall as well. Schleider noted Viking Plaza in Alexandria was in similar shape where a bowling ball could be sent down the hallways without fear of hitting people.
“We took it and literally gave it CPR,” Schleider said. Occupancy rose from 65 percent to 98 percent. And he said the same can be done at the Westgate Mall.
The new owners said they are not absentee landlords and will regularly visit the site every four to six weeks and be available to tenants.
“Their success is our success,” Retkinski said.
And they want to make it more appealing with more home comforts to shoppers. More immediate changes include adding free WiFi, which is hoped to appeal to students as they linger at the mall along with spouses of shoppers. Plans are to add a widescreen TV with weather and news updates and add a sponsored child play area.
In addition to the mall space, a 1.15 acre parcel in front of the mall toward Washington Street near Burger King could be home to a national chain restaurant. Schleider said that would add to the mix and the goal of bringing more offerings to Highway 210.
The new theater is also expected to be a draw for restaurants. Retkinski said they feel confident they will get a national chain restaurant.
Brainerd Mayor James Wallin said Highway 210, or Washington Street, has 30,000 vehicles a day traveling on that highway, rivaling Highway 371 numbers.
Chez Eider, president of Eidco Construction out of Chicago, said they’ll be bringing in local workers for the construction efforts.
Retkinski also wants to hear from shoppers and have an email to take comments, concerns or ideas and answer questions via email@example.com. For more information on contractor opportunities, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re thrilled. It’s great news,” said Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson of revitalization plans and more employment from owners with a proven track record of success. “In this downturn economy, the things that are happening are really exciting.”
The mall will be managed by Lexington Realty International, based in Lakewood, N.J. When the new stores are complete, the mall expects to host a grand reopening. Retkinski said it will be way to show people there is more to the mall than a perception of a just a few stores and too many empty spaces.
As for the often talked about death of enclosed malls in favor of strip malls, Retkinski pointed to a study done by the International Council of Shopping Centers that during the last three difficult years enclosed malls have retained the highest occupancy greater than strip malls. In northern climates, it just makes sense, Retkinski said, noting with the changes on an already sound building, the mall can be a destination place.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.