Mall fans might need lower expectations

Midtown at Forest Acres
Midtown at Forest Acres

Midtown at Forest Acres has done high-end, and it didn't work out so well.

Soon after Richland Mall, as it was originally called, was enclosed in the late 1980s, it lured Bonwit Teller, an ultra upscale department store with locations in New York and Miami Beach.

But Bonwit left after just two years and eventually so did many other stores. The mall is less than half full.

Now, less than two weeks after Midtown got new owners, some shoppers are calling for another try at upscale.

In a Facebook group called "Please bring some nice stores to Richland Mall," some of its nearly 1,200 members have clamored for merchants not yet in the Columbia area - Ikea, Trader Joes, Pottery Barn and an Apple store.

"Crate and Barrel. Cheesecake Factory. Please keep Gymboree and TGIFridays," one poster wrote. "I will shop every day and spend our whole Social Security check at Richland Mall if you bring some nice stores!!"

Many of the posters say they hate driving out to the suburban shopping hubs, in the Harbison area, home to Columbiana Centre, and Village at Sandhill in Northeast Richland.

But analysts say upper-end stores likely would fail again in Forest Acres.

"They're not going to get all those stores they want," USC retailing professor Richard Clodfelter said. Bonwit Teller "was just so above the market."

He said he could see discount or even outlet stores succeeding.

Clodfelter, who also lives near the mall, said it is hard to put a finger on why it has failed through the years, other than that the ownership problems have plagued it in recent years.

The new owners, Columbia-based Century Capital Group, have remained largely silent on their plans since they bought the mall on Feb. 16 for $4.4 million - 85 percent less than the initial asking price.

Efforts to reach the mall's new managers, Don Taylor and Bill Walkup, were unsuccessful last week. Taylor, an Irmo real estate developer, is listed as a member of the Facebook group about proposed new stores at the mall.

In a brief statement issued after the sale, Century Capital said it believed it could build on the mall's location in Forest Acres, proximity to upper-end Columbia neighborhoods, 3,900 parking spaces and 20-plus current tenants, including a movie theater.

The company also plans to change the name of the mall.

Midtown at Forest Acres was conceived in 2006 when an owner, who would later default, came in with grandiose plans to build a hotel, senior housing center and condos and turn the bottom floor of the mall inside out with street-entry boutique shops.

The mall has been in a decline since then, kept alive by its constant anchor, Belk, as well as Barnes & Noble bookstore, T.G.I. Friday's restaurant and the popular S&S Cafeteria. It mostly attracts mall walkers, who have plenty of open space to roam, and moms bringing their children to Gymboree's play center.

At its peak in the 1990s, the mall boasted three anchor stores, including Dillard's and Parisian, and had a large food court on an upper level that is now home to a Verizon call center.

The mall likely can't support another department store, Clodfelter said, and would be more successful if anchor spaces were filled with discount clothing stores, such as T.J. Maxx or Stein Mart.

Mira Howard, a Shandon stay-at-home mom who started the Facebook page, said that's exactly what she would like to see in the mall - even if some of the posters to her page are calling for Nordstrom and Restoration Hardware.

"I don't think we're going to see a Nordstrom anytime soon," she said. "It took Charlotte a long time to get one."

Clodfelter said he could see Midtown becoming a home for outlet stores, such as Tommy Hilfiger or Polo - on the level of Concord Mills in North Carolina. He said the mall is close enough to USC that it could appeal to students. It also likely would draw from the young families and professionals living in the downtown area and the baby boomers in Forest Acres.

Mix in some restaurants and entertainment options - such as the Columbia Children's Theatre that already is there - and it could be a winning combination, he said.

Howard said her impromptu focus group is just a small representation of people who would shop at the mall if it had more options.

She said she moved to Columbia five years ago and was excited to have a mall near downtown, but she was extremely disappointed when she visited.

"It didn't make sense to me because it's in a great location," she said.

Howard said she feels like she needs to plan her entire day around a trip to Harbison even if it's just to pick up a pair of jeans at The Gap.

"The traffic alone is very frustrating," she said.

Ultimately, no matter what stores the new owners are able to attract, the shoppers will decide the mall's fate, Clodfelter said. "The tenants are going to leave if customers aren't there."