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Officials exploring how to bring retail life back to Eisenhower Parkway

Dark and vacant.

That’s the best way to describe several retail shopping centers on that stretch of Eisenhower Parkway between Pio Nono Avenue and Log Cabin Drive. Empty buildings total nearly a million square feet.

At the corner of Pio Nono and Eisenhower: Westgate Mall — the first enclosed mall in Georgia — is gone. Wal-Mart — gone. Media Play — gone. PetSmart — gone. Stacy’s — gone. Home Depot — gone.

While many of these powerhouse retailers have found new homes in the area, the blight left behind is hard to miss.

Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse is the only major retailer there along with a few small stores and a restaurant.

A little farther west on Eisenhower, the former Kmart building has been empty since 2003 when the company closed it as it went through bankruptcy. Several spaces in the Bloomfield Village shopping center remain dark. Circuit City, which closed last fall, has graffiti painted on the front of the building.

In between the vast pockets of empty buildings, some retail stores and businesses continue to greet customers. Some of these include: Kinder’s Furniture, Office Depot, Fred’s, Rooms to Go, Pier One Imports, Carol’s Linens, Haverty’s and Lowe’s Home Improvement. Even though two anchors left Macon Mall and it has faced foreclosure proceedings, the regional shopping center with four major anchors remains open for business.

FILLING EMPTY SPACE

Local economic and government leaders say they’re concerned about the empty buildings and are beginning to look at what can be done to revitalize this stretch of Eisenhower Parkway.

In November — a month after Dillard’s department store announced it would leave Macon Mall — Macon City Council passed a resolution introduced by Councilwoman Elaine Lucas asking a host of economic development agencies to come up with a plan that would attract and encourage redevelopment in locations like Eisenhower Parkway.

“It’s a very difficult task, especially in light of the economy, but if those entities can join forces and look at what we can do ... even if it’s a little bit, it will help,” Lucas said last week. “There are too many empty buildings, too many homes that are for sale. ... We’ve got to think holistically on this thing and look at pulling the entire community up. It may call for some innovative ways of doing things, maybe some tax credits are available, and I know there are some federal and state incentives for doing various things.”

Lucas said she doesn’t have any specific ideas about what could be done on the dark Eisenhower corridor.

“I am thinking that all options are on the table,” Lucas said. “I can’t think of it becoming anything other than retail, but there are different types of retail. ... I think innovative ideas that have been tried in other places we could try here and it would catch on and thrive.”

Following the council’s request, the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce began working on a study of the area, said CEO and President Chip Cherry. The study will be looking at the amount of active retail square footage now compared to eight to 10 years ago as well as population changes, he said.

“We will try to engage some other people and how they have redeveloped similar areas for some other uses,” Cherry said. “Is there another life for those properties? What kind of policies or other things would have to be enacted to stimulate that kind of redevelopment and what is it?”

The idea is to come up with a premise and then test the premise, he said.

“For example, if you had 4 million square feet (of retail space) and 300,000 people and a few years later if you have the same ratio of square feet per person, then that means the market is pretty stable as it relates to retail,” he said. “You haven’t really changed any ratio which means it couldn’t handle any more retail.”

Cherry said he hopes to have the report ready by midsummer.

The chamber has had conversations with a group at Georgia Tech that studies redevelopment of urban areas, but Cherry said he wants to have more details before continuing that discussion.

“We’re in a fact-finding stage right now,” he said.

Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed use development for The Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., said the chamber’s survey is “very important.”

“You have to figure out what can be supported,” Kramer said. “There may be support for retail but not nearly as much as there is space. You have to know the market. There might be demand for housing but not retail. It might be a little bit of both. It could be office parks, it could be anything.”

James Chamblee, who has lived on Stallings Drive behind the former HiFi Buys building since 1958, said he would like to see more neighborhood friendly stores move in.

At a recent county zoning meeting, Chamblee opposed a proposed night club that was planned for the vacant electronic store.

“I oppose this because it’s in my front yard,” he said at the meeting. “It’s not what goes on inside, it’s what goes on outside when (patrons) come out. I just don’t want it there.”

Chamblee said more recently that something like a fabric store would be a good business in that building.

“Several families live by me and it would be convenient to them to have something like that,” said Chamblee, who worked for the cinder block company that built Macon Mall.

“There are some good buildings out here and (businesses) can make some money,” he said.

Sam Billingslea, who lives near the nearly empty Westgate shopping center, said he and his family have discussed what could go in some vacant buildings.

“We’ve talked that maybe some of the empty buildings could be turned into some kind of recreational area for kids to have something to do,” Billingslea said. “They could have after-school programs and something during the summer. A lot of kids won’t have an opportunity to go to summer camps because of financial restrictions, and we don’t have anything for them to do over here.”

Also, perhaps the former Kmart building could be turned into a multi-theater complex, he said. A theater used to be at Westgate and one used to be at Macon Mall.

“Another thing, the owners (of vacant buildings) could do better upkeep of the buildings,” he said.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said a developer or “redeveloper” might be able to identify whether the vacant areas should remain commercial or could be converted into office space, residential or a combination under a mixed-use plan.

“I have been around long enough to see commercial developers build and subsequently abandon property,” Reichert said. “They leave behind these empty buildings and leave the property owner with a building that’s difficult to lease because it’s been constructed to a specific use.

“I understand in some communities they have taken formerly commercial areas and converted them into mixed uses with apartments, where people could live and walk to work and restaurants that are right there,” he said.

A couple of plans are in the works for this stretch of Eisenhower Parkway.

Renovations are under way at the former 48,000-square-foot Kroger store at Parkway Village shopping center for an indoor flea market. The Macon Indoor Flea Market with 250 booths is expected to open this summer.

Also, Serena Wholesale, a wholesale distributor for convenience store supplies located at The Shoppes at Bloomfield, plans to build a 10,000-square-foot addition to its 15,000-square-foot facility.

EVOLUTION OF SHOPPING AREAS COMMON

Kramer explained how shopping centers going dark is not new as many become the victims of new trends and shopping habits.

“This is, unfortunately, very common,” she said. “These were the first tier suburbs — the first developments outside downtowns.”

When Westgate Mall opened in 1961, it was the place to shop in Macon. It was anchored on both ends by grocery stores and it included a cafeteria and a commons area that was used for car and boat shows and beauty contests. It prospered until the mid-1970s, when Macon Mall was built. By 1978, Westgate was mostly empty until 1987, when Wal-Mart located there. In the mid-1990s, the enclosed mall was torn down in favor of a strip shopping center.

Retailers evolving, changing what they are, and people moving away from shopping centers creates the perfect climate for once thriving retailer centers to turn into dark corridors such as the one along Eisenhower Parkway.

For example, home improvement stores want to be closer to where people are building new homes. Also, some retailers move because they want to use a new format because their physical space becomes obsolete under a new business model, she said.

“Sometimes just by the fact that there’s something newer and looks better, sometimes that’s the reason the market shifts around it,” Kramer said.

Central Georgia Technical College President Ron Natale said he’s noticed over time that the types of retail has changed in response to shifting demographics. CGTC is just off Eisenhower Parkway, across from Macon Mall.

“For instance, in 2007, I noticed that there was a loss of 5,000 households within five miles of our Macon campus since the 2007 census,” Natale said in an e-mail. “This has to affect retail in those areas. With College Park apartments reopening on Williamson Road and the new development nearby, there will be opportunities to re-establish retail at the mall and along Bloomfield (Road). ... CGTC enrollment has grown and residential will grow in our vicinity so providing mid-scale quality retail should rebound with the economy.”

Georgia Tech associate professor Ellen Dunham-Jones describes the progression of retail moving from downtowns to close-in suburbs to farther-out suburbs as leapfrogging in a February video presentation based on a book she co-authored: “Retrofitting Suburbia — Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs.”

The book tells of 80 examples of dead malls, dying office parks and aging residential subdivisions in suburbs that have been redeveloped.

“We believe the big design and development project of the next 50 years is the retrofitting of this landscape that we built,” Dunham-Jones said in the video. “We need to continue to grow our downtowns and fill our infill urban areas.”

When these shopping centers were built they were at the edge of the suburbs, but they are now in a central location in relative terms within their metropolis, she said.

“A lot of developers are looking at them as underperforming asphalt sites — sites with a large box on it surrounded by a lot of parking,” she said.

When vacant areas are redeveloped, it often initiates other development and this reduces the overall crime rates in the surrounding neighborhood, she said.

But sometimes complete redevelopment isn’t the answer.

“Sometimes the strategy is to do nothing at all, beyond encouraging re-inhabitation of older retail sites,” Dunham-Jones said. “In areas that have a lot of new immigrants, often the best thing you can do is make sure they have access to very cheap space to be able to nurture Mom and Pop’s, small businesses, health clinics and job- training sites.”

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was used in this report.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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