LAKE WALES – If there’s one particular business that’s taken a hit from the recession, the shopping mall could be close to the top of the list. A growing number of malls across Central Florida have spent the past few years grappling with the challenge of too many vacant storefronts that have become an embarrassment and a sign of declining business, not health.
At the Eagle Ridge Mall in Lake Wales, the old approach – finding big name stores to move in and attract more people – isn’t the approach being taken. Instead, the mall’s managers are going about it differently, through steps that include hosting a community walk that promotes health care, starting a shuttle service to a nearby theme park, and having football games televised live there – an approach that the mall’s marketing and leasing manager, Michelle Martinelli, says is paying off.
“Everything is going very well,” she said. “Traffic has picked up tremendously.”
One reason for that, Martinelli said, is the close proximity that the mall at 451 Eagle Ridge Drive in Lake Wales has to the Legoland Florida theme park, which opened last October in Winter Haven at the site of the former Cypress Gardens theme park. Business was so strong at Legoland over the holidays that the theme park reached capacity on Dec. 28 for the first time, closing its parking lot around 12:30 p.m. that day, and officially stopping guests from going into the park by 1:25 p.m. Legoland also extended its operating hours until 8:30 p.m. that day, an half and a half later than normal.
Martinelli noted that when Legoland Florida first opened, the mall introduced a shuttle service to allow the Eagle Ridge guests to visit the theme park if they wanted to – and, not coincidentally, pick up some coupons for the mall’s restaurants.
“The shuttle to Legoland lets the customers come in and ride the shuttle to Legoland, and they get coupons to a couple of the restaurants here,” Martinelli said. “It goes every hour on the hour. You can pick up the tickets at Subway or Steel City Grille.”
But Martinelli isn’t giving credit for the increased traffic at Eagle Ridge Mall solely to Legoland. Rather, she said, it’s the special programs and marketing efforts that Eagle Ridge – originally built in 1996 — has launched in recent months that’s helping them survive in a challenging economic environment.
“I think it’s through the events and the traditional marketing we’ve done,” she said. “The events we’ve had in the mall have helped us out a lot more.”
The 15-year-old mall has more than 624,000 square feet of space, and is managed by the firm Madison Marquette. The previous owner was Chicago-based General Growth Properties, which owned both the Lakeland Square and Eagle Ridge malls. That company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009.
Madison Marquette, a Washington-based investor, developer and operator of retail and retail mixed-use real estate, took over the management of Eagle Ridge in November 2010, and was able to lease half of the mall’s vacant space by the end of the year.
In an era when many of the newer shopping plazas have been outdoor malls, like The Loop in Osceola County and Posner Park in Davenport, Eagle Ridge is one of the shrinking number of indoor malls for people who want to escape the Florida heat or avoid a soaking summer thunderstorm. Others include The Florida Mall on Sand Lake Road in South Orlando, Central Florida’s largest mall with more than 250 stores; the Festival Bay Mall on International Drive; and the Mall at Millenia on Conroy Road off Interstate 4.
Eagle Ridge is now home to an eclectic mix of shops, from large retailers like Sears, JC Penny and Regal Cinema to Dillard’s, Bath & Body Works, Radioshack and Toys R Us, to restaurants like Sbarro Italian Eatery, Garfield’s Restaurant & Pub, and Hershey’s Ice Cream.
Smaller specialty shops include Artistic Expressions, Ce’s Bridal, Zeeba’s Hairstylists, an Army Recruiting Center, and Star Academy of Polk County.
Right now, Martinelli said, the mall is close to full.
“Occupancy is pretty high,” she said. “Since the opening of Legoland, it’s been going well here. Traffic is phenomenal, which we’re totally excited about.”
Part of that success, Martinelli said, is the efforts by the mall’s managers to become more community-oriented – in effect to find more creative ways to bring in foot traffic, in particular by hosting special events that make the mall a destination for more than just shopping or dining.
“We do have special events that have been going on,” she said. “We have 17 foot tall screens where we show football games here. People have come in and watched that. It’s been great.”
They tie in to holidays as well.
“During the holiday season, we gave away hot cocoa and cookies, and whatever proceeds we made were donated to the local ASPCA,” she said.
The mall is also making an effort to be good neighbors, she said.
“We’re reaching out to the community as well,” Martinelli said. “We started the Mall Walker program last year, and this year it kicks off on January 24. The Mall Walker program is where local residents come in around 8 o’clock in the morning and just walk around the mall, and we’re going to have 1950s music to pump them up and get them going. We’ll offer a free breakfast, and we’re partnering on this with the Lake Wales Medical Center. Last year, we had about 100 people, and this year we’re hoping for at least 200.”
Events like this, she said, are making Eagle Ridge Mall more than just a traditional mall.
“We’re holding more events every month to get the community involved, and reaching out to everyone we can,” she said. “We’re trying to do every kind of event we can, and have a monthly theme to them.”
But if the mall’s management is dreaming up special activities to draw people in, are those customers also patronizing the shops inside the mall?
“Business has been slow,” said Pat Evans, who runs the clothing store Ce’s Bridal.
“On the weekends, there’s a lot of traffic,” Evans said. “During the week, not too much traffic.”
Business has improved a bit since Legoland opened, Evans said, although the shop hasn’t been in business at Eagle Ridge Mall long enough to know how much of an impact the theme park has had.
“We’ve been here just over two months, and I couldn’t really tell you what it was like before,” Evans said. “They opened up around the same time we did. But there’s definitely a little more business now. You see the difference.”
Evans said the shop’s biggest challenge isn’t the local economy, but foreign competition.
“We sell dresses, and a lot of people buy directly from China, real cheap,” Evans said. “They can get a dress for $100 straight from China, but it’s not the same quality we get from our company. At those kinds of prices, there’s no way you can compete with that.”
Evans moved the shop to the Eagle Mall Ridge last year from his previous location in Sebring, which he said was “much worse. Sebring was real slow. There’s nothing much down there.”
Lake Wales is a major improvement, he said, because the mall’s management is actually trying to find ways to bring more people to the shopping center.
“I think the mall is trying to do something to get people here,” Evans said.
Tracy Lenave, assistant manager of Garfield’s Restaurant, said business has been “okay,” but has dropped off since the holidays ended. She said it was stronger in the fall, right after Legoland Florida opened, but it’s not clear if the theme park had an impact on that.
“It’s hard to tell,” she said. “That’s our seasonal time, anyway. From October and November to December, that’s our season, anyway, so we get a lot of people here.”
Still, Lenave said she has spoken to a lot of customers who said they discovered Eagle Ridge Mall after a visit to Legoland.
“I have talked to a lot of Legoland visitors,” she said.
Sandra Gagnon, manager of Sbarro Italian Eatery, said she also gets a lot of customers who want to know where the mall’s shuttle to Legoland is.
“Everyone keeps asking about it,” she said. “They just come by and ask, ‘Where is it?’ “
But even with the addition of Legoland Florida next door, the shuttle service, and the special events hosted by the mall, business has been tough for Sheila Zeeba, who runs Zeeba’s Hairstylists. In fact, she doesn’t plan to renew her lease when it comes up this fall.
Since Legoland opened, she said, business hasn’t gotten any better at her salon.
“Not at all,” she said. “Maybe for the restaurants, but not for us. Compared to the last couple of years, it’s not good to be in here. As soon as my contract is up, I am leaving. I could do better outside the mall.”
Weekdays are particularly tough, she said, when there are simply not enough customers visiting this mall.
“Today there is no one in the mall,” Zeeba said on a Tuesday afternoon. “There’s literally no one at the mall. After 5 or 6 (o’clock), it’s dead. And it’s scary to be in here at night. I’ve been here for five years, and year after year it gets worse. After my contract is over, I’m not going to stay. It’s just not worth it.”
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