As shopping patterns change, a midsized mall holds on: ‘It’s hard work’

Eastridge Mall added a nontraditional tenant, a license plate office, last summer as a way to generate more foot traffic.
Eastridge Mall added a nontraditional tenant, a license plate office, last summer as a way to generate more foot traffic. The Charlotte Observer

Jane McClure remembers when the spot where Eastridge Mall now stands on New Hope Road was nothing but a field. She’s been shopping at the mall since it was built in 1976 and is glad it provides an alternative to driving up Interstate 85 to a Charlotte mall.

“I don’t like to drive in Charlotte,” says McClure, of Gastonia. “It’s got so much traffic, and the roads go every which way.”

Shoppers like McClure are the ones Eastridge is trying to hold onto.

Once a bustling retail hub, Eastridge in recent years has lost major tenantssuch as Sears and RadioShack, seen more of its customers choose Charlotte malls instead, and faced the changing shopping habits (think Amazon) that are leaving retailers everywhere scrambling to adapt.

Charlotte malls such as Northlake and SouthPark are undertaking renovations, and newer entrants like Charlotte Premium Outlets are targeting budget-minded shoppers. I drove out to Eastridge because I wanted to see how a traditional midsized mall in a smaller city was trying to keep up with the changing retail landscape.

“Nobody’s delusional here. It’s hard work,” Lance Sturges told me. He’s the senior general manager at CityView Commercial, the New York real estate firm that bought Eastridge in 2013. “There’s a lot of pressure with retail.”

Steps Eastridge has taken include opening new stores, adding Wi-Fi to its second-floor food court and staying engaged with the community by hosting events such as a traveling 9/11 exhibit and a women’s health expo.

CityView purchased Eastridge from an Australian company that had owned the mall since 2002. The troubled Westfield Shoppingtown Eastridge Mall, as it was then called, had been losing tenants such as Waldenbooks and Lane Bryant, and its entire third floor was unleased.

The new owners – whose website says focus on “distressed retail assets throughout the United States” – are now trying to breathe new life into Eastridge, which was a shopping hotspot when it opened 40 years ago thanks to demand from the vibrant local textile community.

“We’ve been dealt a set of cards, and we’re playing them,” Sturges said.

Time for a face-lift

Charlotte’s Northlake Mall last month announced it’s getting a $50 million addition that will expand the shopping center by 200,000 square feet. Just ahead of the holidays last year, SouthPark mall wrapped up a major renovation project that included updates like new furniture and upgraded landscaping.

It’s typical for malls to try to renovate every 10 years or so, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“That doesn’t mean a whole, big-scale knock-it-down type of thing. But some kind of aesthetic renovation – new carpeting, new lighting, new flooring, new paint – whatever it is, something to keep it fresh and modern,” Tron said.

As the Charlotte malls reinvest in their facilities, Eastridge has only had one major face-lift, completed in 1999. The nearly $10 million project included adding a new department store (Sears), building new entrances and improving the landscaping.

But this year, Eastridge did add Wi-Fi to its food court, Sturges said, and late last year installed fiber-optic cable throughout the mall to improve cellular connectivity.

As far as a potential future renovation is concerned, Sturges said nothing’s off the table.

“We’re evaluating daily the options that are in front of us. There’s no doubt in my mind that this mall, in the next two or three years, will see some dramatic changes,” Sturges said.

National chains closing

Plenty of parking was available on a recent weekday afternoon I visited Eastridge. There was a light flow of shopper traffic through the quiet and tidy three-story mall – a few teenagers walking through with their heads down in their cellphones, a handful of older folks meandering through and some moms with small kids.

I saw many more vacant store fronts than I was expecting, though, and they underscored a painful truth: Eastridge remains a target for struggling national chains looking to close certain locations.

Sears, one of the mall’s four anchors, closed at Eastridge in late 2014, one of about 100 stores the struggling retailer said it was closing at the time. The department store chain remains troubled amid competition from online retailerssuch as Amazon and weak holiday sales, and vowed again last month to tighten spending even more this year.

RadioShack closed in Eastridge early last year when the electronics retailer said it would shutter about 4,000 stores nationwide as part of a complex restructuring. Elsewhere in the mall, Gap closed before the new management came in, Aéropostale closed in 2014 and Hollister closed its doors in January.

The mall has had two letters of intent for the Sears space over the last six months, Sturges said, but it hasn’t signed a new tenant.

“We’re very proactive, but we’re slow to the trigger as far as actually making the deal because we want to get folks we’re comfortable with and who will do well here,” Sturges said.

Still, the mall has added eight new, albeit lesser-known, tenants this year alone, including a popcorn shop called Popcorn Heaven and a sports apparel store called Fan Cave. Stout said the mall’s occupancy stands at 84 percent, up from the estimated 68 percent in 1998 as the renovation was underway. The remaining major anchors are Belk, J.C. Penney and Dillard’s.

The mall has also pushed to increase foot traffic with the addition of a nontraditional tenant: a license plate office that opened last summer in the food court. Sturges said it took the mall a year to get the office, and that it’s been “good for traffic.”

An improving economy

Furthermore, Stout said, holiday sales at Eastridge were up 6 percent, double the national growth rate for the season, a sign local shoppers are still spending.

Though the mills don’t power the local economy as they once did, Gaston County continues to recover from the downturn. Its unemployment rate was 5.3 percent in December, the most recent data. That figure is half of what it was in December 2010.

The local housing market is improving, too. Recent figures show that housing starts, or groundbreaking on new single-family homes, rose 28 percent in the fourth quarter last year, faster than the 19.6 percent for the whole Charlotte metro area.

The mall’s management hopes to ride the coattails of the mending economy, and to be the community’s go-to shopping center once again.

It’s thinking of shoppers like Karis Bess of Kings Mountain. For her, Eastridge is a quick “run in, run out” option over a longer trip to Charlotte to buy kids’ clothes. “This is just most convenient,” Bess said.

“We know that for major shopping, SouthPark is a heck of a good choice. We’re trying to be an alternative for that (shopper) who doesn’t want to go through that traffic,” Sturges said.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta