Business

From suburban flight to downtown hype, will Macon’s retail shift ever end? It’s complicated.

Can retail be rescued? Why so many U.S. stores are closing

Stores that have been staples of the American shopping tradition for decades are closing in large numbers. Take a closer look at the reasons why it’s so hard for retailers to stay open.
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Stores that have been staples of the American shopping tradition for decades are closing in large numbers. Take a closer look at the reasons why it’s so hard for retailers to stay open.

Rusted light poles loomed over a near-empty parking lot. Patches of sun-scorched grass shot up through cracks in the asphalt. Save for a small cluster of businesses — a dollar store, a Taiwanese restaurant, a nail salon and a shoe store — Westgate Shopping Mall is a desert of commercial blight.

When it opened September 1961, people flocked there to experience the best and latest in retail. With 30 stores under one roof, it was the first air-conditioned mall in Georgia and one of only six in the country.

“It was the first time you could shop inside,” Jim Thomas, lifelong Maconite and director of the planning and zoning board, said. “It was inviting. It was clean. You had fountains inside. It didn’t matter if it was pouring outside or 100 degrees outside, it was a good shopping experience.”

Up until Westgate opened there at the corner of Pio Nono Avenue and Eisenhower Parkway, downtown was the city’s premier shopping destination.

The economic boom after World War II and the new interstate system were among factors that influenced changes.

“As the march to the suburbs happened, of course, people’s shopping habits change because it became more convenient,” Thomas said.

Westgate touted its parking lot’s capacity for 2,100 automobiles.

J.J. Newberry, Ligett’s Drugs and Woolworth’s opened stores there.

The shopping center was a $3 million investment by William A. Fickling and B. Sanders Walker.

Westgate prospered for more than a decade. Then, Macon Mall opened in 1975 — just two miles away on U.S. 80.

The shifting landscape of retail here hasn’t stopped.

Many of the downtown retailers would relocate to the Macon Mall and later to The Shoppes at River Crossing in north Macon.

Smaller franchise stores and big-box retailers would shift throughout various strip malls and power centers and later open in north, south and east Macon.

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Telegraph archives breaking@macon.com

Mall to Mall

Most of the city’s major retailers, such as Belk, Sear’s and Davidson’s, left downtown for the Macon Mall when it opened in July 1975.

Other businesses added second locations at the mall, but many would eventually close downtown.

The Macon Mall, originally named Colonial Mall, was a $25 million investment by Birmingham-based Colonial Trust Properties.

The 1.7-million-square-foot super-regional mall had enough parking spaces for 5,500 cars. It also had escalators and, at its center, see-through, glass elevators.

The Macon Mall helped shift westward the hottest part of Macon’s retail corridor, moving it from the I-75 end to the I-475 end of Eisenhower Parkway. Westgate retailers would feel the impact of that shift.

In 1995, Westgate property managers decided to change the name to Westgate Outlet World and the building was reconstructed to look more like a strip mall.

Meanwhile, commercial developments like Mansour’s department store and Barnes & Noble popped up along Tom Hill Senior Boulevard.

The Macon Mall underwent a $50 million expansion in 1997. A Parisian’s store and a two-story food court named Cafe Carousel were among additions.

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Macon Mall in 1997. Robert Seay breaking@macon.com

Mall to Sprawl

In northwest Macon, Amstar Cinema 16, a 66,600-square-foot theater, opened in the summer of 1999 on Zebulon Road near a Kroger grocery store. The new businesses set the stage for development across the road later that would include a Walmart Supercenter, Lowe’s and Kohl’s.

On the west side of town, development continued to sprawl toward I-475. The migration would leave a trail of empty storefronts along Eisenhower Parkway, one of the city’s arterial routes that connects with I-75.

Westgate was barely hanging on in 2001 when Eisenhower Crossing, a $50 million, 500,000-square-foot retail complex, opened up just a mile from the Macon Mall, fewer than 3 miles from Westgate.

The outdoor shopping complex, at which it is customary to drive from store to store, attracted big-box retail tenants such as Target, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Old Navy, Marshall’s and Best Buy.

By 2005, Home Depot was among several other stores to close in Westgate and open at Eisenhower Crossing. Bass Pro Shops opened about the same time on Bass Road near I-75, spurring more development in the area.

In 2010, Hull Property Group bought the Macon Mall out of foreclosure and demolished the east wing that was part of the $50 million expansion in 1997.

The Augusta-based company owns 31 malls including one in Milledgeville and another in Statesboro. Its mission is to “acquire and reposition retail properties by working within the community to rebuild and strengthen the retail landscape” in places that include dated malls.

‘The New Mall’

Plans for a north Macon mall had been talked about for decades before construction began on The Shoppes at River Crossing in September 2006.

Concepts and plans for a mall between Wesleyan and Riverside drives were discussed by other companies, but the 67-acre open-air shopping mall ultimately was a joint venture between Jim Wilson & Associates and General Growth Properties Inc.

The new mall is classified as a “Lifestyle” center, because it offers “upscale national-chain specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an outdoor setting,” according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Jim Wilson’s late father, who also was named Jim Wilson, founded Colonial Properties, the company that built the Macon Mall decades earlier.

Despite aggressive changes in retail over the last three to five years, The Shoppes are doing well and “the future looks bright,” Wilson told The Telegraph by phone from his office in Montgomery, Alabama.

“All retail is transitioning with the internet and with the ease of people to purchase and just the value of time,” he said. “Bricks and mortar we feel like is something that will be there forever. People like to get out.”

Earlier this year, Wilson’s company announced Tobesofkee Crossing, a 15-acre development planned at Thomaston and Tucker roads. Publix Super Market will anchor the shopping center, according to the company, but retail tenants have not yet been announced.

“The market is right, the growth is there, the incomes are there,” Wilson said. “Everything is setting up to be a successful project.”

Though he expects change for the retail business, Wilson said he is not expecting “a bomb” like online shopping to drop on the industry.

“I think about it, but I have to also be an entrepreneur and an optimist that this world is going to keep growing,” Wilson said.

This is the proposed site plan for the shopping center at 1625 Bass Road in north Bibb County, as presented to Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission in a March meeting and on the commission’s website.

Downtown

Carol Kaplan remembers watching the Christmas Parade roll down Cherry Street from the upstairs window of Chanins, an old store that is now the site of Dovetail restaurant.

A sign for Stephen’s is still affixed to the brick building beside the restaurant where Kaplan’s parents operated a fashion store for women.

Kaplan is familiar with the trail of retail in Macon. Her parents’ store expanded from downtown to Westgate, then moved to the Macon Mall, Riverside Plaza and Ingleside Village.

Kaplan opened her own store, Carol’s Linens, 42 years ago on Gray Highway. Since then, it has moved to two different locations on Eisenhower, then to Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard briefly before settling at The Prado on Forsyth Road.

The store offers customized bedding, curtains, drapes and home decor.

“The reason that I am here 42 years later is really where our roots started downtown on Cherry Street, because back then it was all about customer service,” she said. “Somebody walked in the store, they were waited on. They were catered to.”

When retailers moved from downtown to the Macon Mall, residents left too. The decline of the area that began in the mid ‘70s continued for decades. Historic buildings decayed. Blight set in.

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Grant Blankenship/The Telegraph The block of Cherry Street in Macon just north of Third Street Wednesday afternoon. Grant Blankenship The Telegraph

By 2008, more than half of downtown storefronts were boarded up. Since then, the area has undergone a renaissance of sorts.

Beer breweries, coffee shops, law firms, hair salons and restaurants have opened in the city’s heart over the past several years.

As of May, about 70% of stores downtown were occupied, according to the Historic Macon Foundation.

The trend of consumers returning downtown for entertainment, shopping and living seems to be a national trend and “a rejection of suburban life,” said Greg George, director for the Center for Economic Analysis at Middle Georgia State University.

“I think we got sick of commuting,” he said. “I think that helps. When you concentrate people, it becomes more economically feasible to do things.”

Most who are living downtown are young professionals and couples without children, NewTown Macon Executive Director Josh Rogers said. The average rent downtown is $1,195 for about 900 square feet of space.

Since 2015, 74 new businesses have opened downtown, most of them locally-owned and family-operated, Rogers said.

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Woody Marshall/The Telegraph Macon, Georgia, 09/11/09: Downtown Macon. Woody Marshall The Telegraph

Revitalization did not start overnight. Public-private partnerships were key to the change that is ongoing today, George said.

“Eventually, whatever the economy is doing is what’s going to happen to the area,” George said. “If downtown Macon continues to revitalize, it just becomes higher and higher rent ... then you price certain people out of the market and then where do they go?”

Downtown, “the core of the economic engine,” will have to “get revved up before (revitalization) can start moving out into these other areas,” George said.

While downtown revitalization does not help out south, west and east Macon, George said, “they’re going to have to wait their turn, basically.”

Empty Spaces, Undesirable Places

What will become of Westgate, the Macon Mall, the shuttered Target and Kmart on Macon’s west and north sides?

The federal government created Opportunity Zones, which are made up of census tracts that are struggling with economic growth, to incentivize investors by allowing them to defer capital gains taxes for up to 10 years. In short, the tax incentive allows for a higher yield on the investment.

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Opportunity Zone in Bibb County screen grab

The Opportunity Zones here include: Allied Industrial Park, Centreplex & Coliseum Hospital area, Westgate Mall, Mill Hill Arts Village, Pleasant Hill neighborhood, Seventh Street Industrial district, Walnut Creek Village and a portion of the Macon Mall.

“People think it’s going to be a big push to revitalize some of these areas,” George said. “The problem is like: I still need something that works. You can’t just put a bunch of money into something and then it’s fixed. You need an idea.”

J.C. Penney does not work at the mall and Burlington Coat Factory does not work at Westgate. The stores will never be profitable at those locations ever again, George said. The buildings were purpose-built for big-box retail.

“The worst case is, we just have nothing to do with these places,” George said. “And they continue to kind of get worn down and then pretty soon it’s just Detroit.”

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.
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