Mall makeover: Renovations bring Macon Mall 'back to life'

rmanley@macon.comNovember 19, 2011 

When Hull Storey Gibson Cos. bought Macon Mall a year ago, the new owners promised a transformation. Friday, they delivered a first phase of renovations that impressed even the most savvy of shoppers.

“It’s so light in here now. You can see from one end to the other,” said Lilly Joyner of Macon, who’s shopped at the mall since it opened in the 1970s.

Other reviews ranged from “very pretty” to “classy,” as the mall officially unveiled indoor renovations that crews carried out after-hours during the past several months. Old tiles were ripped up and replaced with new carpet throughout the mall corridor. Historic black-and-white photos of scenes from Macon and Bibb County, such as “Frozen Ocmulgee in January of 1886,” were blown up and posted on the freshly painted walls.

The big, barrel skylight in the Macon Mall’s center court is almost gone, covered with new ceiling tiles. Hundreds of hanging, pendant light fixtures help set a softer tone, and the smaller skylights all have been replaced with new, more energy-efficient -- and leak-proof -- models.

“This place was leaking like a sieve,” said John Gibson, chief operating officer for the Augusta-based Hull Storey Gibson. “I mean, they had buckets out.”

One of Hull Storey Gibson’s first objectives was to begin demolition of the mall’s east wing, what Gibson calls “a shrinking of the mall to a size that’s viable,” while completely renovating the rest of the retail center. The stairs and escalator in the food court were removed, and kiosks were trimmed from a dozen down to one to achieve clear lines of sight to help shoppers get past the mall’s reputation as a sometimes unsafe place.

“It seems to have a new purity to it,” Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart told a crowd gathered at center court. “We’re real appreciative of what management has done to bring this place back to life.”

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert called the mall’s new look a “remarkable renaissance.”

“The transformation and the difference in the inside here is just unbelievable, compared to just a few short months ago,” Reichert said.

The renovations are about more than just giving the mall a brighter, cleaner look. Each of the physical changes are aimed at changing attitudes formed during what Gibson called “a very sad ... unnecessary, decline.”

“The idea is this is a dangerous place, maybe three or four years ago,” Gibson said. “There was no owner. The lender was in Maryland. They had given up on Macon.”

Hull Storey Gibson bought the mall in September 2010. The company owns 17 enclosed malls in the Southeast and Texas, but Macon is its “flagship” property, Gibson said.

“We have dedicated ourselves to turning the mall around. We’re putting our capital and our energy into trying to turn this property into something you can take pride in.”

As workers continued to knock down the mall’s east wing Friday, indoors Gibson brought out a band, balloons, even a new “Cherry Bear” mascot to celebrate, though he was hard to find during the festivities.

“Where’s the mascot?” Gibson asked. “He’s in a bear costume. I’m sure he’s embarrassed, and that’s why he left.”

Gibson said the goal of the renovations is to create a “warm, comfortable environment.” At its own expense, the mall built a new, roomier office for the Macon Police Department’s 4th precinct, while also beefing up mall security.

“The mall is a safe and secure place,” said police Capt. Joseph White. “There’s very little if any crime at the Macon Mall, other than shoplifting, and that happens anywhere.”

Lotte Younis, Joyner’s friend and shopping buddy, said she hopes the renovations generate more support for the mall.

“I don’t care what anybody says, I feel safe out here,” Younis said.

Gibson sees the mall as “a great opportunity for Macon ... for the entire community.”

“We’re calling it a ‘new beginning’ because we’re not finished,” he said.

More change coming

The renovation has followed design principles including clear lines of sight and evenness of light, Gibson said.

The light brown carpet “brings the tone down in a very broad kind of way,” Gibson said, including lowering noise levels. Though tile is much easier to maintain, the use of carpet at its properties is so important that Hull Storey Gibson sends management staff for carpet cleaning training in Denver.

The remaining larger skylights at Sears and JCPenney stores have been tinted, and the new pendant light fixtures throughout the corridor redirect light to give an “ambient indirect light.”

The kiosks that cluttered the corridor were among the first to go once the new owners took over.

“You can see the Sears sign,” Gibson said, standing at the far end of the corridor, near the JCPenney entrance. “We think clear lines of sight are important. People want to be around other people, to see other people. Without the kiosks and what I call ‘clutter,’ they don’t feel as isolated.”

As renovations continue, the demolition of the wing is continuing at a slower pace as the owners want to recycle whatever materials can be reused. For instance, concrete from the old Parisian store will be crushed and used for sub-base of a new road that will cut through the demolished area from the new roundabout entrance at Eisenhower Parkway to Mercer University Drive. The old Dillard’s store will remain as a free-standing building, as a result of negotiations with anchor tenants concerned about expansion possibilities.

JCPenney will get a “completely different look” on its exterior, along with a new parking lot and a “cart barn,” Gibson said. The owners also plan to “punch up the look” of the mall’s main entrance, along with the front of the Macy’s department store.

State-of-the-art security cameras already have been installed. Security staffers patrol the parking lot on foot, rather than in trucks.

“Our philosophy is that we treat everybody with courtesy and respect,” Gibson said. “But this is a shopping venue, and if you’re not shopping, then we might ask you to leave and come back when you plan to shop. It’s not a public park. It’s not the library.”

Meanwhile, work is continuing on the new Smok’n Pig BBQ restaurant, and Gibson said the mall also is adding a new Subway restaurant. A 40,000-square-foot space once occupied by Old Navy and currently used for storage and staging during the renovations will be marketed to larger tenants.

The Shoe Department store will move into a bigger space and expand to a “Shoe Department Encore” store, Gibson said. The store’s current space will be used to erect new escalators near the JCPenney entrance.

Outside, new monument signs are going up, and the electronic reader signs are already flashing along both Eisenhower and Mercer.

Gibson is confident the mall not only will rebound but will thrive despite stiff competition from the Shoppes at River Crossing, an open-air “power center” in north Bibb County. He still believes in the enclosed mall concept, noting that Macon last year had 129 days of temperatures above 90 degrees and 80 days with some form of precipitation.

Another advantage, he said, is the “retail concentration” of the area.

“We’ve got Target. We’ve got Sam’s. We’ve got Wal-Mart. We’ve got 75,000 cars driving by here every day. The Shoppes at River Crossing has 14,000.That’s an exponential difference.”

Gibson declined to put a price tag on the renovations, though it has been estimated “in the millions.”

The mall currently has 70 shop tenants, and Gibson said the goal is “to build to 100.”

“Our goal and belief is the people in Macon and the surrounding community want to take pride in their mall, and we have begun that process. ... It took five years for this mall to go into decline. We’ve had it one year.”

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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