Philip McConnell, general manager of the Savannah Mall, can sum up his biggest challenge in one word: perception.
“It’s been perceived as going down for years,” said McConnell of the 23-year-old shopping mall. “There’s a new rumor every week that the mall is going to be sold and closed and Bass Pro is going to move to wherever, and none of those are true.”
McConnell took the reins at Savannah Mall just under two years ago as part of a management overhaul at the 960,000-square-foot, two-level center. McConnell works for Chicago-based Urban Retail, a national real estate management firm specializing in regional malls and big box stores.
Sitting down with the Savannah Morning News this week, McConnell said his strategy now, as it was when he took over, is reinvention.
“We’re more of a hybrid center than a typical mall,” McConnell said. “There’s no way we could go up against Oglethorpe. They’ve got everybody that you would want if you were going after the teen (market).”
Besides anchor stores such as Target, Dillard’s, Bass Pro Shops and Burlington Coat Factory, the mall is home to an eclectic tenant mix of more local shops like the Fitness Emporium, Savannah Piano and Savannah Candy Co. It’s also an outpost for Virginia College, which offers vocational courses.
A central food court consists of usual suspects Sbarro pizza and Savannah Gyro, but also boasts a newer Vietnamese vendor serving traditional Pho noodle bowls.
McConnell said he wants to carve out a family friendly entertainment niche he believes has been lacking on the southside.
Three tenants arriving this summer and fall aim to deliver that. The first, a 13,000-square-foot Wing Shack will open in July or August in a space across from Ruby Tuesday’s on the Dillard’s end. They started demo just this week.
The second, announced more than a year ago, is the 15,000-square-foot Toby Keith I Love This Bar and Grill. Originally scheduled to open in early 2014, McConnell said it’s looking more like September for launch.
“It’s been a long drawn-out process,” said McConnell of trying to get permits to begin work on the Toby Keith space, which will absorb six storefronts and feature a stage for touring bands.
During the same period of time, he said, Keith launched restaurants in several other cities.
The TobyKeithUSA.com website does not list Savannah under its “Coming Soon” locations, but McConnell said this is only because it’s still a little ways from opening.
The third entertainment space is Pole Position Raceway, which is leasing 43,000 square feet for an indoor electric go-kart track.
The occupancy rate about a year ago was 73 percent, but when those three venues open, McConnell believes it will increase to around 80 percent.
“By the time we get Pole Position, Wing Shack and Toby Keith open, we’ll see a hefty jump in the occupancy,” said McConnell.
Quashing rumors, keeping anchors
Another challenge has been the headwind of rumors surrounding the mall’s major anchor stores, particularly that Bass Pro Shop or Target may well want to pick up and relocate to the Tanger Savannah Outlet Mall under construction in Pooler.
He said Bass Pro has given no inclination of wanting to move and has a five-to-six year lease remaining. Other anchors, he said, have actually seen an increase in sales.
“One of our anchors was up 30 percent in December sales; another one was up a little over 22 percent,” said McConnell. “So they’re seeing sales increases, and that’s what keeps anchors in place.”
Dillard’s and Target own their spaces and have no intention of moving, according to McConnell, who said even the heads of these department stores don’t pay much mind to rumors.
“They all think it’s comical,” said McConnell.
A timely shortcut
A new selling point that McConnell and his leasing team are using is the opening of the final leg of the Truman Parkway, which provides an artery from the islands and downtown to Southside. Those wishing to travel further south no longer have to endure the sardine-like congestion of Abercorn.
“I think once people start realizing, start using it, that will be a big windfall for us,” said McConnell.
The DOT expects 23,000 additional cars to empty out onto Abercorn as a result of the Truman extension, additional traffic that will likely benefit the mall.
It can’t happen soon enough. A mid-week late afternoon stroll around the mall revealed at least a half dozen gated storefronts and slow traffic. A few parents in military fatigues watched their kids practice tumbling at Coach Wayne Gymnastics, while the carousel operator manned her station, though there were few kids around to take advantage of it.
The Clinique counter at Dillard’s was buzzing over the spring bonus cosmetics bag giveaway, a hot spot by comparison.
The Savannah Mall, like many regional malls across the country, faces the challenge of how to remain relevant in a shopping culture that is increasingly going online for consumer goods.
McConnell said more people are shopping online because of the time factor. To attract more people to the southside, he said, there needs to be a bigger and more diverse selection of shopping destinations.
“The bigger the mass, the bigger the draw, so we’re trying to create as much mass out here as we possibly can,” said McConnell. “We think that we can fill that niche and that’s what we’re moving towards.”
He said stores and retailers considering the new Pooler center will be competing with Oglethorpe but not necessarily with the Savannah Mall.
“So if you’re coming with us, you’re not going to be competing directly via one of those two centers,” said McConnell. “So that’s kind of what we’re looking for, maybe somebody’s who’s not as traditional.”
Can a once traditional mall regain its footing as a less traditional one in time to lure niche retailers, more entertainment centers and family friendly dining options?
McConnell believes it can be done.
“We’ve got to be different,” said McConnell. “We’ve got to change with everything.”