Grecian immigrant Nick Sidiropoulos, aka “Mr. Nicks,” moved from Canada to Midlothian for one reason: The Macedonia native had no family here, no wife, no kids, no nothing but the desire to open a barbershop in the spanking new Chesterfield Mall.
When the mall opened in 1975, his barbershop was one of four retailers in a single, 300,000-square-foot strip of a shopping center with a single anchor, Miller & Rhoads. “I was always looking to open a business in the United States,” Sidiropoulos recalls. “I came just for the mall.”
Thirty-four years later, Sidiropoulos' barbershop still stands, the last of the original tenants, in a mall that isn't supposed to be here. Malls are supposed to have life spans of 25 to 30 years. More often than not, the rule applies. (See Cloverleaf, Azalea, Walnut Hill and the virtual graveyard at Deadmalls.com).
Chesterfield Mall morphed into Chesterfield Towne Center in 1987 during the first phase of a massive expansion. It more than tripled in size to its current 1.03 million square feet — and has seen a carousel of department-store anchors and dozens of smaller shops come and go through the years: Miller & Rhoads, Thalhimers, Leggett, Belk, Dillard's, Profit, Hess's and even a Giant Open Air (in the parking lot), among others. There's just one hitch: The mall's already outlived itself.
“We're rebounding and coming back stronger than ever,” says the mall's manager, Tom Coover, senior property manager for the mall's owner, the Macerich Co., who's been on the job for about a year. “We haven't lost our competitive edge.”
The mall came under serious attack five years ago, shortly after Richmond's last great mall sprawl — Short Pump Towne Center and Stony Point Fashion Park both opened in fall 2003, bringing more than 2 million square feet of open-air, newfangled “lifestyle shopping” to the region. But somehow Chesterfield held its own. It also hasn't hurt that two planned malls in the county failed to gain traction.
The first big threat came in 1991, when the Rouse Co., which also built 6th Street Marketplace, announced plans to build a mall at Route 288 and Hull Street Road, along the county's southwestern edge, with more than a million square feet and as many as five department stores. About 10 years later, another mall — by Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group — was proposed at 288 and Midlothian Turnpike.
Both malls were doomed in part by Route 288's construction delays. Simon had also planned to build an upscale “lifestyle center,” but ran out of demographics when plans for Short Pump and Stony Point progressed more quickly than expected. Richmond simply isn't big enough for three upscale shopping centers. Today, the old Simon mall site is home to the Shoppes at Westchester, which has been a disappointment to county planners but welcome relief to Chesterfield Towne Center.
Instead of a mall with upscale anchors, Westchester snagged a Target, Petco, a Regal movie theater and a host of other not-so-unique retailers such as Dressbarn, Payless ShoeSource and Lee Spa Nails. This was the same development that spooked Chesterfield Towne Center, so much so that the mall's management circulated a letter carousing public opposition to what eventually became Westchester.
“It's just another power center with a little lifestyle component to it,” says Brian Glass, senior vice president of retail brokerage at Grubb & Ellis/Harrison & Bates, dismissing Westchester as a threat to Chesterfield Towne Center. “This is the only regional mall in Chesterfield County, so they've done a pretty good job of reinventing themselves and keeping themselves fresh at this point.”
Indeed, Coover says Macerich did extensive research and evaluated the mall's place in the market after Stony Point and Short Pump opened in 2003. “We saw it was obvious that we weren't serving our core customer,” he says.
So the mall management set out to bring some of the lifestyle component to the mall — luring in higher fashion retailers such as Coldwater Creek and Bachrach Menswear and turning its outer faAade facing Huguenot Road into something more pedestrian friendly. It lured Barnes and Noble Booksellers to take over the old movie theater space and added a Red Robin Inn to the food court.
“I think the lesson from Cloverleaf is you can't wait until your area goes downhill,” says Tom Jacobson, director of community revitalization for Chesterfield. “You make improvements and changes when you're healthy.”
Despite a progressive approach, the Chesterfield mall is hardly out of the woods. It has a higher than usual vacancy rate of 10 percent, Coover says, and it's probably more in terms of square footage considering the two empty department-store anchors (both vacated by the recently departed Dillard's). Coover promises that big announcements are on the way concerning new tenants despite the depressed economy, but declines to offer sales figures or traffic counts.
Across the country, enclosed malls have long lost their cool. Much of it has to do with the death of the traditional department store as shoppers began gravitating toward big-box stores such as Target and Kohl's in the mid- to late-'90s. In fact more than 400 enclosed malls in the United States have closed since 2007.
But there's reason to think Chesterfield Towne Center may cheat death for a few more years. First, the area's demographics are as strong as ever — within a five-mile radius of the mall, the average household income is $97,515 compared to the county's median household income of $58,537.
Glass, the retail broker, says the mall's life cycle really started in 1987, the year of its first big expansion, when Chesterfield Mall became the regional Chesterfield Towne Center, which means the mall should start a good sweat sometime in 2012. Before 1987, Glass says: “It wasn't really a mall. It was a pretend mall. It only had one anchor and a little strip of stores.”
That's exactly how Sidiropoulos remembers it. In those first three years, he says, the lack of business nearly forced him to close shop. He's glad he stuck it out.
“Lately, it's a little down,” says the 71-year-old barber. “But there is still a lot of people coming to the mall.” He adds that business at his shop is as strong as ever. Three decades of satisfied customers can do that. “I'm still here. I'm still healthy. The people still like me. What am I going to do?” S