The new owners of Midtown at Forest Acres have "quite a mountain to climb" to turn around the struggling mall, industry experts said Wednesday.
But many hope they can use the location - in the heart of one of the richest shopping districts in the Midlands - and build something that would draw more customers and more stores.
A Columbia-based company bought the mall Tuesday for $4.4 million from a group of Florida investors that bought it out of foreclosure and put it on the market a year ago for $28.5 million.
The new owner is Century Capital Group LLC. Donald E. Taylor, an Irmo real estate agent and commercial developer, is the registered agent for the company. He will own the mall with Bill Walkup, according to a news release.
The new owners said in a statement they will change the mall's name. Between 1988 and 2005, the center was called Richland Fashion Mall and Richland Mall. It became Midtown at Forest Acres five years ago.
Through their real estate agent, the buyers have said they are not ready to discuss their plans for the mall other than to say they want to restore it to the viable, thriving shopping center that it once was.
"There's quite a mountain to climb to get that center back in shape," said Whit Suber, a Columbia real estate broker who is a longtime Forest Acres resident. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of capital."
At one time, the mall had a Dillard's and a Parisian and dozens of smaller stores. Today, it is anchored by a Belk and a Barnes & Noble and has about 18 other stores, including a rooftop theater, food court restaurants and a children's theater.
Alan Kahn, developer of Northeast Richland's Village at Sandhill, said the mall can be viable again if the new owner can attract new tenants in this tough economy.
"It's going to take a lot of work," said Kahn, who was part of a group that considered buying the mall but backed out. "I hope they'll be able to do it."
Kahn said Taylor is an experienced investor and developer who has the potential to make the project work.
"He's been around a long time and doesn't do things without thinking about them," Kahn said.
Merchants hope the new owners will be able to bring some vitality back to the mall.
"All I've seen in the last four years is stores leaving the mall," said Mike DeLaney, manager at S&S Cafeteria, which is the mall's oldest tenant at 25 years.
DeLaney came in as manager of the restaurant in 2006, around the time Peerless Development Group bought the mall and announced a $300 million plan that included condos, a hotel and boutique shops.
"We were real pumped up," he said. Stores started leaving the mall around that time, fearing the effect construction would have on their businesses, he said. But "nothing ever happened."
DeLaney said he met with the new owners Wednesday afternoon for about an hour as they made the rounds meeting tenants and listening to their ideas. He said that is the first time an owner of the mall has ever met with him.
"Everything they said sounded very encouraging," he said. "They're going to go out and aggressively look for new tenants."
DeLaney said he is happy to see a group of local owners take over the mall and has high hopes they will turn it around as his business struggles just to get by, relying on regulars since there is little mall traffic.
"We want to see these stores be full," he said. "We're not choosy."
Rita Smith, whose art gallery has been in the mall for 20 years, said she would like to see some of the residential development from previous plans pan out and more anchor stores that are not currently in the Midlands come in. She said she would really like to see Dillard's come back.
"If they could get the right stores in there, the mall could flourish," she said.
Suber, who said he also had an interested client for the mall at one point, said the mall has some issues that will be hard to overcome, such as a variety of unusual leases and blocks that are owned by other entities.
A Verizon call center moved into a large chunk of the mall about a decade ago. Some say the move broke up the flow of mall traffic and contributed to its decline.
The call center is moving to Northeast Richland, and the new group of buyers has not ruled out the possibility of buying it. The owners are asking $16.2 million for the center.
Efforts to reach the brokers for the call center, CB Richard Ellis, were unsuccessful Wednesday.