Macon Mall turns to the arts to fill empty space

Instead of showcasing his art in a downtown gallery like other artists, Michael Paul has chosen a different, less obvious place to share his work: the Macon Mall.

Paul is taking part in a new program called Artspace, which, along with a laser golf course, is one of the mall’s recent efforts to help reinvent itself.

The mall will offer 18 of its vacant stores in the east wing to artists, who can then transform the space into galleries, studios and offices. Three artists already have been recruited to display their work at the mall.

Mall manager Brian Olivi said he hopes the program will attract more people, increasing foot traffic and hopefully increasing sales for other mall retailers.

“We want to make the mall an art destination, to make it a fully functioning art colony for Middle Georgia with artists working on and showcasing their work around the clock,” Olivi said.

The idea for the program came from a sister mall in St. Louis, Olivi said. That mall was able to fill 45 empty stores with paintings, sculptures and dance studios.

“It’s a ‘win-win’ situation for everybody,” Olivi said. “It helps retailers, it helps artists and it even helps the community by providing a place to view local artwork,” Olivi said.

As part of the program, artists will receive discounted rent, flexible lease terms and 24/7 access to their spaces.

Paul said the mall is a perfect place for him because, unlike other galleries, it allows him to keep 100 percent of the profits from his paintings rather than being charged a portion of the sale.

“I’ve considered putting my art in some of the galleries downtown, but this makes a lot more financial sense,” Paul said.

Another benefit of locating at the mall, he said, is that it makes his artwork accessible to people who wouldn’t normally get the chance to see it.

“Hopefully, people who wouldn’t necessarily go to a downtown art gallery but who would go to Macy’s or Sears on Eisenhower Parkway will see my art and get inspired,” Paul said.

Artspace is not the mall’s only effort to increase its traffic. In April, the mall recruited Lunar Mini Golf, a laser putt-putt company out of Akron, Ohio, to open a location in the second level of the east wing, near the former Dillard’s. Olivi said the business has already brought a new demographic to the mall.

“We’ve seen so many parents bring their kids there that the (Lunar Mini Golf) course is now our No. 1 store in the whole mall,” he said.

Despite the traffic from the laser golf course and other retailers, Macon Mall may not have an easy time getting artists to invest in the program.

The 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center has at least 40 vacant storefronts and its sale is pending after going into foreclosure last July.

In 2007, Parisian, a 104,000-square-foot department store, closed its location in the mall. A year later, Dillard’s, another anchor store, relocated to the Shoppes at River Crossing, an outdoor shopping center in north Bibb County.

Macon Mall’s current management company, Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle Americas Inc., is “constantly out trying to attract new tenants,” Olivi said.

But in the past year, more than 35 stores have left the mall, according to the mall’s June 2008 directory compared with the June 2009 directory.

Some of the stores that have closed include Gap, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Eddie Bauer, Lane Bryant, Wolf Camera, Starbucks, Piccadilly Cafeteria and Ruby Tuesday.

Last January, Dallas, Texas-based Movie Tavern Partners LP announced plans to open a 35,000-square-foot dinner theater in a portion of the former Parisian store, but after further consideration, backed out of plans for the location.

“The initial plans for the theater didn’t turn out to be cost-effective, so the ownership decided to table the project and look elsewhere,” Olivi said.

Olivi maintains, however, that Macon Mall still has the ability to attract new tenants in the future, especially if the condition of the national economy continues to improve.

“Last year alone, the mall had 13 million visits from a 22-county area. We are still the premier shopping center of Middle Georgia, and our losses have been mostly because of the national recession,” he said.

Olivi said the mall houses the only Macy’s department store in the region and that a new Verizon Wireless store just opened in the shopping center this month.

Melissa Goff, a spokeswoman for Macy’s, said the company has no plans to close its store in Macon Mall at the current time.

Unlike other retailers at the mall who lease their space, Macy’s owns the property where its store is located.At least seven of the mall’s retailers have duplicate stores at The Shoppes at River Crossing, including Aeropostale, American Eagle, Belk and Sunglass Hut.

Olivi said he is not worried that The Shoppes will replace the mall anytime soon.

“Nobody wants to spend two or three hours outdoors in the summer heat shopping there. Here at Macon Mall, it’s 72 degrees year-round,” he said.

To contact writer Carl Lewis, call 744-4347.