'We feel really good': West Acres CEO reflects on a year of change at Fargo's mall
FARGO — It's hard to be sentimental at West Acres Shopping Center, especially after all that's happened over the past year.
Change is the nature of malls, and West Acres hasn't been immune. Since last December, it's lost stores both big and small, including Sears, an original anchor when the shopping center opened in 1972.
The list of closures here since December includes several clothing stores, such as Aeropostale, The Limited, New York & Co., Wet Seal and Vanity. SHU by R&G, an original tenant, recently announced it will close following a liquidation sale that began Nov. 16.
Other retailers that shuttered this year include Simply Mac and Family Christian.
But West Acres CEO Brad Schlossman sees a bright future ahead for a facility that he says occupies "the best real estate in the state" near the intersection of two interstates.
Even after acknowledging that West Acres has been affected by national changes in shopping patterns, Schlossman said the mall has reacted by carefully filling in gaps, finding creative new uses for spaces and looking ahead to what else it can add to keep both customers and tenants happy.
"We've been able to respond and successfully respond," he said. "When you look at the stores that have closed and what's happened, we feel really good about where we're positioned today."
The pace of turnover
Schlossman said West Acres is nearly fully leased right now. Just about every interior space has been spoken for, he said, while mall officials are moving ahead on a "transformational redevelopment" of the north end of the former Sears building that isn't ready to be announced.
The bulk of the Sears building is already claimed. Best Buy will relocate there next March from its nearby current location, 1615 38th St. S., which is owned by West Acres Development Co.
Schlossman said that move could open up the block south of the mall for future redevelopment. That likely won't happen anytime soon, he said, because Savers, a current tenant of a strip mall south of Best Buy, has two more years on its lease with a decade of renewal options after that.
He's not entirely sure which of the mall's original tenants remain today, though Hallmark and Zales seem to be on that list.
Schlossman said West Acres' own tracking of turnover shows change is normal. Over the course of a 10-year period, he said, about a third of stores close, and another third transform in some way, such as changing names or expanding.
"We think that's healthy," he said.
The past 12 months fit into that pattern, though the change was more noticeable because it was so concentrated, he said.
Despite all of that, Schlossman said West Acres saw good business during the back-to-school rush. All the kiosks that set up in the hallway for the holiday season also came back, he said.
That doesn't mean the pace of change will slow, and Schlossman said he fully expects to have more years like 2017.
"Stores that don't respond to the changes aren't going to be long for this world," he said. "We're sorry to see that, but at the same time, that gives us the ability to bring in something new."
Schlossman said demand is still high, something he attributes to the mall's strong ties to the community and its location in a region with a strong economy.
At the RECon shopping center convention earlier this year, West Acres had its busiest year ever with people making appointments with mall representatives, he said. That demand has helped West Acres quickly fill many of its vacancies in recent months.
The former Trade Secret space, for example, was claimed by an expansion of Evereve. The loss of Wet Seal near the food court was filled in last week with the opening of lululemon, which will temporarily use that spot until it moves to a permanent space.
Simply Mac's closure made room for current tenant Lux Spa to relocate and expand. New York & Co.'s old storefront became a temporary home to Legacy Toys last weekend.
Even outside the mall, the former TGI Friday's in the parking lot that closed two years ago is being replaced by the community's first Chick-fil-A restaurant.
Still, Schlossman said perception might not match reality because work to get a lease signed can take many months before the public knows about it.
That was the case with women's clothing retailer Dry Goods that was announced as a future store on Nov. 7. He said West Acres made an agreement with the brand shortly after Aeropostale closed last December, but because Dry Goods couldn't open a Fargo store until 2018, negotiations took longer than normal.
To make the best use of the temporarily vacant space, West Acres recently turned the old Aeropostale into The Lounge, a holiday hangout area.
Schlossman said it's an example of trying out ideas they've long had but couldn't do in the past because of a lack of space. Over the past year, West Acres has also launched an artist-in-residence program and offered up an incubator kiosk space.
Vacancies have also created room for tenants to grow, including Halberstadt's, which expanded by taking over half of what was once The Limited store. The other half could be claimed by a prospective tenant that wants that space as well as the SHU by R&G storefront, he said.
Schlossman said West Acres will continue to focus on its "key element" of success — having stores that people want to visit — while also looking to adjust the mix, including possibly stepping up food options and bringing in more boutiques or other in-demand retailers.
But he said store closures don't warrant the kind of "uh-oh" response that people on the outside might think, especially when demand is still high to do business here.
"When the change happens, we think that it's largely a positive thing," he said. "If you look at where the mall was in the '70s, '80s, '90s, I don't think today's population would want to have the West Acres of 1994."