Capitalizing On Recreational Fun

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY/NNY MAGAZINES
The St. Lawrence Centre’s new Sports Complex is seamlessly attached to the mall, and provides a year-round safe and fun environment for a wide array of activities.

BY: Bob Beckstead
The St. Lawrence Centre mall has found the right ingredients to bring people in the doors again – a mix of national and local stores, combined with various forms of entertainment to add the finishing touches.
 

    Mall Manager Erica Leonard said the resurgence really began when they cut the ribbon for a new artificial turf field in August 2018 at what was once a year-round ice rink. 

     “We’re trying to turn the mall around. We’re trying to make this a family environment,” Amrick Bansal, vice president of legal and corporate affairs for the Shapiro Group, the mall’s owners,  said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

    Since then, as big box stores continue to file for bankruptcy and malls everywhere have difficulties keeping tenants, the St. Lawrence Centre mall has looked for the right balance of stores and entertainment to keep people coming in the door. 

    “For me, it was always finding a balance between bringing people in the door, the right events that are going to attract the most people and hit the biggest market that I can hit, and getting people to stay on site for most of the day,” said Ms. Leonard, who was hired as the mall’s manager in March 2017, three months after the Shapiro Group purchased the facility from the Carlyle Development Group. 

    “When I first interviewed, one of the questions they asked me was, ‘What do you see when you walk around here,’ and my answer was, ‘A lot of space.’ My second answer was, ‘A lot of potential.’ My whole mindset was that there’s a whole lot of space here that we can do anything we want with and we have to think outside the box and get creative, and that’s how I came into this job,” she said. 

    The entertainment side of the mall includes Bill Delarm’s B.D. Entertainment, which offers on-site or rental bounce houses;  Mr. Delarm’s Kaboom Bumper Cars; nine holes of golf at Jungle Fun Mini Putt, owned by Justin Blanchard and his wife, Ashley; and the Elite Events Party Room, an entrepreneurial venture by Leonard Nesbit and Jason Foster. And laser tag is on the way. There’s still talk about a multi-plex theater, too, Ms. Leonard said. 

    Then, there’s the new sports complex and its artificial turf in what was once a year-round ice arena. The 1,300-person-capacity field turf offers year-round entertainment for, a variety of activities, whether it’s kids parties, fitness programs, recreational or professional sports leagues, or anything in between. 

    Visitors will see golfers honing their skills on the indoor driving range. Or they might see some soccer or lacrosse action taking place on the field. Or a family may have rented the facility for a birthday party. 

    “We’re in the process of building a sports bar restaurant. That’s going to go across from the turf, so that’s going to be a big draw for people,” Ms. Leonard said. 

    When the St. Lawrence Centre mall opened its doors in in 1990, business was booming. The Massena area benefited from a strong manufacturing base and heavy cross-border shopping  by Canadian customers. Anchor stores included The Bon-Ton, JC Penney, Hills and Sears. 

    Of those stores, only JC Penney remains at the mall. The Bon-Ton filed for bankruptcy in 2018. Ames acquired Hills in 1999 and, by the end of 2002, Ames was also out of business. Sears announced in 2018 that it would close 142 unprofitable stores and targeted 40 more Sears and Kmart for closure in February 2019 as the company worked through bankruptcy. 

    JC Penney announced that it would close 27 stores this year, but the Massena location was not on that list, and it remains the St. Lawrence Centre’s anchor store. 

    “JC Penney is closing a lot of stores and thank God we’re not  on that list because it would change a lot of things. We’re very thankful that this store specifically is profitable,” Ms. Leonard said. 

    As stores left the mall, the ownership changed hands. It was sold to AP Massena Partners in 1995, then to the Carlyle Development Group in 2003. General Growth Properties was hired to manage it starting in February 2004 and, in January 2017, a group of Canadian investors, the Shapiro Group, bought the mall and started to focus on its future. 

    “Unfortunately, it is a 30-year-old building and when I first came on, I did not realize the state of the building. I really spent the first year-and-a-half trying to get things fixed and up to code. It was a lot, and we’re still working on it. It didn’t fall apart in a day, and it can’t be fixed in a day. We’ve made a lot of positive steps. We have a fantastic staff that knows what they’re doing and can get things taken care of, which has freed me up to get other things going,” Ms. Leonard said. 

    Her focus has been trying to bring in more stores and provide bigger, better entertainment to bring in shoppers. 

    “It has to be a multi-phased approach and I knew this going in because retailers want to see certain metrics before they’ll even talk to you. They want to see a population of a certain amount of people. They want a certain median income. They want a certain amount of people walking through the door every day. When I first started here, we didn’t fit any of them,” she said. 

    “We still don’t necessarily fit the population and the income requirements. But now we have the traffic coming in because of everything we’re doing here and moving it towards entertainment. They’re talking people that live within five miles of here, but now that I’m showing the traffic numbers and I’m showing how many people are getting in here every week, they’re expanding that to be ‘Okay, what does 30 miles look like?’ Thirty miles gives them the population that they want and the income that they want, so now we actually have retailers looking at us, which is fantastic,” Ms. Leonard said. 

    But not every store is a perfect fit for the mall. 

    “We really have to find the right retailers for our area, and the ones that are not filing for bankruptcy, like Bon Ton or Payless,” she said. 

    In the meantime, the mall continues to hold its own, thanks to the entertainment opportunities and tenants.  

    “When I first started here, we were about 26 percent full. We are at 58 ½ percent full now,” she said. 

    The current tenants include stores small and large, national and local – JC Penney, Olympia Sports, Kay Jewelers, maurices, C&R Sales, Elite Events by: Lenny, Ice House Antiques, Mainly Music, Mustard Tin, Nice Nails, Thousand Words Photography, Progressive Imports and more. 

    The food court, while not full, continues to slowly build. Wendy’s has been a long-time mainstay, and the newest additions are Rapidz and Mickey’s Place, both of which have received rave reviews from customers. 

     “It’s the unique stores that help make us successful and the activity places like The Studio, the runway space, the bumper cars or the bounce houses. We just brought in Standing Rock Boxing Club. Now we’re working on getting a gym in here. Those types of things are going to bring people here,” Ms. Leonard said. 

    “People don’t really realize what the mall has to offer. There are some empty stores, but there are also some great little stores,  local people and local money,” Mr. Blanchard, owner of Jungle Fun Mini Putt said in March 2018 when he announced plans to open his nine-hole course. 

    Ms. Leonard said one of the keys to letting people know what’s in the mall is to bring them in for entertainment activities. Tenants like The Dance Studio help with that effort. 

    “I know she’s going to bring in a certain amount of people every night for classes, and they’re going to stay here, and moms and dads are going to walk around the mall. So, it’s finding these right types of smaller businesses while we’re waiting for retailers to come in, and then the entertainment piece,” she said. 

    “I’m finding more that, because of the events we’ve been having, now we’re getting people in the doors. Now the people that haven’t been here for 10 years are like, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize this store was in here,” she said. 

    The mall’s Facebook page lists a lineup of activities that will be taking place. When students were on their spring break, the mall had something taking place every day, like a showing of Mary Poppins in The Lounge, a petting zoo with pony rides, a scavenger hunt with prizes, and “kind of a throwback day” with events like potato sack races, egg –spoon races and an obstacle course. 

    “And it’s all free for the community. We’re not charging for it,” Ms. Leonard said. “It’s important for me personally, but it’s important for the mall’s growth as well to find the right mix of things that are free for the community and things that are paid for the community so you’re bringing in the right mix of people, so that everybody can enjoy and benefit and realizes we’re going to make this place a destination for Northern New York. I think in 2019 you’re going to see a lot of big changes here, and we’re very excited. 

    More information about the mall can be found on its website, https://www.stlawrencecentre.com/.