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T.G.I. Friday’s closes as Richland Mall plans stall 771-8308March 21, 2013 

— Efforts to bring national retailers to Richland Mall have stalled, a retail recruiter said Thursday, the same week the mall lost a major tenant.

A parking garage that blocks street view of much of the mall and the structure’s divided ownership are the major obstacles to its redevelopment as a thriving retail center, said Alan Kahn, a Columbia-based shopping center developer who had been helping recruit retail tenants for Richland Mall.

“You cannot reconfigure it the way it needs to be for retail,” Kahn said. “It can be used for other things. We had three to four national retailers that wanted the site, but it would require significant reconfiguration.”

Kahn declined to name the retailers, but he said they all would have required more visibility from the street and more surface parking than currently is available. They also would have required changing the footprint of some mall stores. The mall’s majority owners – Century Capital Group – are unable to make the necessary changes because they do not own the entire mall, he said.

Meanwhile, T.G.I. Friday’s – a fixture at the mall for decades – closed its only Columbia restaurant, leaving a note on the window thanking customers for 24 years of patronage. Efforts Thursday to reach company officials for details about why the restaurant closed were unsuccessful. An auction of restaurant equipment and artifacts will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the mall, located at 3400 Forest Drive, the note said.

It was another blow for the mall, which has been struggling to define itself for more than a decade.

Twenty years ago, Richland Mall boasted three major department stores and dozens of smaller retailers. Now, it is anchored by Belk and Barnes and Noble and has only a handful of other small shops.

In 2006, Peerless Development Group bought the mall, announcing a $300 million plan that included condos, a hotel and boutique shops. However, the economy soon tanked and the plan never materialized.

Century Capital Group, headed by Bill Walkup and Don Taylor, bought the mall – with its long, dark stretches and more mall walkers than shoppers – for $4.4 million three years ago. It had been put on the market for $28.5 million a year earlier by a group of Florida investors that bought it out of foreclosure.

The local ownership group’s plans were to return the mall to its former heyday. While acknowledging they were buying it in the worst economic downturn in a generation, the new owners said they anticipated a mix of retail, office and possibly even residential uses.

But three years later, the 700,000-square-foot mall remains filled partially with nontraditional users, including a fine arts center, a law enforcement physical training center and even a koozie manufacturer. The mall has been used for table tennis tournaments and haunted houses. And a 163,000-square-foot chunk at the rear is office space for a law firm, and a national accounting and consulting company.

Landing a major retailer has been elusive, Kahn said.

Stores are reluctant to commit in an economy that is showing only slow improvement. Then, there is the mall’s fractured ownership; its unusual layout, with a department store dividing the two wings; and the oddly placed parking deck.

“It’s very difficult to convince a national retailer, who has other options, to put a store where he can’t be seen and his customers have to park in a garage,” said Kahn, who developed the sprawling Village at Sandhill in Northeast Richland.

Still, Kahn added, “I’ve never found a site that had as many national retailers willing to consider it as Richland Mall.”

That’s partly because the mall sits in the middle of one of the most affluent residential areas of the state, offering a built-in customer base.

“With the national tenants that would have come to the center, it would have been like a rebirth,” Kahn said.

“Now, it’s going to be a rebirth of something else.”

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