By Natalie Simms
It’s been almost five years since Hull Property Group purchased Mount Berry Mall for $6 million. We’ve seen several retailers come and go, a few cosmetic changes both inside and out, and now efforts to get a tax allocation district approved to make additional renovations and perhaps additional development around the center’s footprint.
But as some malls shutter across the country, what’s ahead for the Rome property?
The thing that makes or breaks a shopping center is its retail line-up. Mount Berry Mall has never been at 100 percent occupancy and currently has 25 retailers, a hair salon and seven food/restaurant vendors for a total of 33 tenants.
Under the five years of Hull ownership, retailers exiting the mall include Sears, Christopher & Banks, Knight’s Jewelers, Express, Structure as well as a number of kiosk businesses that closed in early 2013 after HPG removed them. Retailer Sienna & Bellini opened in November 2014 but closed just two years later.
New retailers in recent years include Dunham’s Sporting Goods, Buckle, Spencer’s Gifts (actually a return to the mall), The Children’s Place and Gadget. We’ve also seen the expansion of Rue 21 within the last year. On the food side, Auntie Anne’s Pretzel Shop opened in April 2016 and Chick-fil-A made a substantial investment in the revamped Chick-fil-A Dwarf House Classics a few years ago.
“It is important to have the right tenant mix and we want to ensure we have a strong lineup of tenants that can succeed in an enclosed mall. We want to attract long-term tenants with a first-class look that have the merchandise to succeed in the market. It’s not all about attracting new tenants; as a lot of work goes in to keeping the tenants we do have,” says Coles Hull Doyle, marketing director with Hull Properties. “A big achievement was bringing Dunham’s to the mall. The 65,000-square-foot store filled a vacant space that had been empty for several years.”
One of the first noticeable changes: the exit kiosks.
“Since purchasing the mall, we have made some changes to improve the shopping experience including removing visual blockers such as kiosks to provide clear lines of sight throughout the mall. We also covered vacant spaces with historical photographs and colorful murals that represent the Rome community. To the exterior, we rebranded the mall with a new logo, signage and state-of-the-art communication board,” says Doyle.
Once Sears closed in March 2016, it left a complete void on one entire north wing of the mall. Hull quickly walled off the vacant space near Victoria’s Secret and has plans to demolish that space in the future.
Says Doyle: “The retail landscape has become increasingly challenging as tenants face competition from online forces and consumers changing tastes. There is too much retail space and too few tenants. Not every retail property will be successful.”
The future for malls appears bleak. According to a May 2017 report in the National Review, there are about 1,100 malls in the U.S., at least 400 of which are expected to close in the next few years. This is down from some 5,000 malls in the late 1980s.
“We want to see the Mount Berry Mall succeed and have proposed a redevelopment plan that can set the property on the right path toward success. The proposed redevelopment plan would include demolishing the old Sears space, building a connection to the (Rome) Tennis Center road and creating out parcels for restaurants,” says Doyle.
According to the redevelopment plan, Hull would remove 179,394 square feet including the Sears box and surrounding vacant small shops; create four outparcel lots suitable for restaurant and multitenant buildings; provide connection/access point for Tennis Center road (near food court side); build a connection road on mall property from Tennis Center connection to Martha Berry Highway; plus various other interior improvements in remaining mall space.
In order to accomplish this plan, Hull has approached the City of Rome about a Tax Allocation District around the mall property, thereby letting developers keep some of the new tax dollars a project would generate for a specific number of years before paying the true assessed value.
As of last November, Hull paid $86,155.52 in taxes on an assessed value of $5.8 million. That included around $40,500 in city school taxes and $22,300 to Floyd County. The remainder when to the city of Rome, according to tax files.
City officials have been discussing the proposal for months, most recently during a joint Rome-Floyd Redevelopment Committee meeting last week. According to City Manager Sammy Rich, the current proposal consists of 14 parcels within the city limits covering 274.06 acres with estimated market value of $16.74 million and (taxable) assessed value of $6.73 million.
“We are in on-going discussions on this. I plan to discuss reducing the parcel footprint with our consultant to get an idea on how that would impact the usefulness of the TAD,” he says.
In the meantime, Rich says the city is working to apply for grant funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission to build a road connecting the backside of the Rome Tennis Center property to the loop road around the mall.
“The city and county would both have to give their approval of the TAD. We will continue to discuss. It will be later this fall before any decision will be made,” he says.
As for the mall, the owners will be in a “holding” pattern until a decision is made.
“The implementation of a TAD district around the mall would allow us to make an immediate and substantial investment in this redevelopment. We are very pleased with the positive response we have received from local leadership to the proposed redevelopment plans. It’s the right thing for the mall and for Rome,” says Doyle.
“Our goal is to provide a first-class shopping destination for Rome. Turning a property around takes time and it does not happen overnight. We have had some successes but also continue to face challenges. Rome is a wonderful community and they deserve a first-class mall. Local leadership shares that vision and we are excited to work together to take the next step toward improving the property and reaching that goal.”