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Upper Valley Mall faces uphill battle to attract tenants

The Upper Valley Mall says it’s working to attract new tenants and customers, but experts said the mall’s new owner faces an uphill battle after the loss of another major tenant and changing consumer habits.

The mall has so far been unable to attract a major anchor after J.C. Penney and Macy’s closed last year. The biggest recent blow was dealt when the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, which drew thousands of visitors annually, closed its location there after declining foot traffic.

>>RELATED: Boonshoft unlikely to re-open in downtown Springfield

>>DETAILS: Museum’s departure blow for Clark County mall

Upper Valley officials said they have recently signed some new tenants. But several others, including Cardboard Heroes, American Eagle Outfitters and Lady Elizabeth Bridal and Tux all closed stores there this year. Charley’s Grilled Subs also closed in the food court this year.

Experts and local leaders pointed out that the Clark County mall is far from alone in its struggles as more customers shop online and search for bargains at discount retailers.

“We continue to hope the new owner will attract retail,” Clark County Commissioner John Detrick said. “It’s not going to be big box retailers like we’ve known it. Malls are changing.”

>>MORE COVERAGE: Longtime, popular Clark County pizza restaurant closes

And Sears, now the mall’s lone anchor, faces financial challenges nationally.

“The bottom line is the main anchor that’s closing across the country, the one that’s closed by far the most stores is Sears,” said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz and Associates Inc., a national retail consulting firm based in New York City.

Even if the Springfield Sears store remains profitable, nationally the company has struggled to remain viable, Davidowitz said.

It announced earlier this year it will accelerate the closing of unprofitable stores, including 68 Kmart locations and 10 Sears stores this summer. The Springfield location isn’t included on a list of stores the company planned to close, and company officials said their goal was to generate cash with the closings and restore profitability this year.

The mall has been able to attract some new tenants, owner Rao Chekka said in a statement, including New 2 U thrift store and Treasure Trove Collectibles will open soon.

New Upper Valley Associates purchased the mall late last year for about $2.5 million. He also said the mall is moving forward with a long-term plan to find nontraditional tenants who can bring more foot traffic to the retail center.

“The Upper Valley Mall continues to move forward with the strategy of leasing to nontraditional as well as traditional retailers … Potential prospects are in negotiation as well as other options being considered that will best support the mall’s growth,” Chekka said.

The nation’s top malls with high-end retailers still fare well, Davidowitz said. But across the U.S., regional malls like Upper Valley face a tough challenge.

The middle class continues to struggle, and many of those shoppers have turned to dollar stores and less expensive retailers like TJ Maxx, Target and Walmart, Davidowitz said. Even more expensive stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom are increasingly focusing on discount stores.

“It means shoppers are looking for cheaper alternatives,” Davidowitz said. “Where are the cheaper alternatives? They’re not on the mall, they’re off the mall.”

Retailers also face savvier shoppers who can comparison shop online and tough competition from Internet giants like Amazon.

Elizabeth Bridal had been located at the mall for about five years, said Jennifer Orr, the store’s owner. But they recently closed that location and re-opened this month at 1204 N. Bechtle Ave. next door to a Rapid Fired Pizza location.

The mall had been a good location for years but saw a decline in foot traffic once several anchors closed, she said.

“We wanted our own location to have more of a boutique feel with a little more personalized service for the customer,” she said.

Other stores that have opened on Upper Valley Pike, including Rural King, have shown the area can still be viable for businesses and restaurants, Detrick said. He said local officials will continue to work with the mall’s management to attract potential businesses.

“We continue to hope the new owner will be able to attract retail,” Detrick said.

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