Sunday, August 15, 1999

Forest Fair Mall redefines itself


Bass Pro Shops, discounters add to new identity

BY LISA BIANK FASIG
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Forest Fair Mall, the massive retail center that has flirted with failure for 10 years, has hooked its destiny to an outdoorsman chain and a line of value-oriented stores.

        The troubled center, just off the Interstate 275 loop west of Tri-County Mall, has been wounded by financial collapses and retail abandonment since shortly after its opening in 1989.

        Looking to rejuvenate it, mall owner Gator Forest Park Partners Ltd. has signed leases with Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and Burlington Coat Factory.

        Bass Pro, of Missouri, is an interactive retailer that sells a broad range of equipment from golf clubs to recreation vehi cles. It will operate in the former Parisian store.

        Burlington, an apparel discounter, is expected to relocate from Kemper Road in Tricounty to an undisclosed location at the mall.

        Forest Fair also is working on finalizing a lease with home products retailer Bed, Bath & Beyond. Other letters of intent have been signed with several value and outlet-style retailers, mall officials said.

        These stores will complement the existing anchors, Bigg's, Kohl's and Elder-Beerman.

        The entire project, including a 10-screen stadium-style theater and a name change, is to be complete in fall 2000 and will require a $58 million investment by the mall's owner.

        “Our plan is to bring a mall that offers a different retail mix,” said Michael Dunham, senior vice president of leasing for Gator. “And I think Cincinnati is hungry for new retail.”

        The reformation of Forest Fair is a broad plan to redirect the center into an entertainment and mixed-retail mall that will be, according to Mr. Dunham, more than 90 percent occupied. But it also is a case study in retail innovation as developers seek more ways to retrofit outdated malls to meet the changing needs of harried consumers.

        “Research has shown the country has enough retail today for approximately 480 million customers,” said Stan Eichelbaum, president of Marketing Developments Inc., a Cincinnati retail consulting firm that works with malls around the globe.

        “We are in the most creative period of the industry's history right now, in (mall) recycling and the necessity to.”

        Tenants and shoppers at Forest Fair just hope something is done quickly. At roughly 60 percent occupancy, some areas of the mall are outright grim — inactive save for silent mall walkers and the ghostly music of a dissonant sound system.

        “When this first opened it was so much fun and it was so packed at that time,” said Sue Schindler, who works at the Gymboree store at the mall. “Sometimes you look and it's very dark and it's very depressing.”

        Gator's plan to breathe life into Forest Fair is a bold one, given the mall's history. It takes some daring to resurrect a 1.4 million-square-foot shopping center that never drew an unlabored breath.

Difficult past
        Retail observers predicted Forest Fair — then Ohio's second-largest mall — was doomed before it even opened in March 1989. They didn't like its mix of value retailers in one wing and high-end stores in another. They argued its chi-chi department stores, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller, were too upscale and unfamiliar to the Cincinnati shopper.

        And they called the “supermall” too big and poorly located, just 4 miles from an expanded Tri-County Mall, and straddling the middle-income communities of Forest Park and Fairfield.

        “If you have a mall so close by, they've got to distinguish themselves from the competition,” said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “You can't have two malls within four miles that both have a Gap.”

        Also, Australian mall developer George Herscu was over-extended. His firm, LJ Hooker Developments, had acquired tenants B. Altman, Sakowitz Inc. and Bonwit Teller all during the time Forest Fair was being built. Hooker's investment in the mall alone was $250 million.

        Still, Mr. Herscu dismissed his critics.

        “If I'm successful, everyone will say, "Oh, what a great guy.' And if I don't succeed, they'll say, "What a damn fool,'” he told an Enquirer reporter in February 1989.

        If that's how he felt, then foolishness came quickly. LJ Hooker's lenders pulled out, and Forest Fair climbed on the block three months after it opened.

        Mr. Herscu filed for bankruptcy pro tection a month later, causing a chain reaction. In September 1989, LJ Hooker, Forest Fair, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller filed Chapter 11. The stores closed two months later.

        Since then, Forest Fair has changed hands twice and underwent as many transformations. Gator, which acquired the mall in April 1996, signed some new tenants — such as Berean Christian Stores, Moore's Fitness and Guitar Center — but lost Parisian.

        “It's like being in a warehouse,” said Kathryn Girmann, a Forest Park shopper who thinks outlet stores would attract shoppers to the mall. “There's got to be some way to bring it back so it doesn't turn into a ghost town.”

Variety is key Gator said its plan will revive the mall by combining tenants that offer function, entertainment and value retail.
        “A lot of people are spending less time in malls,” said Meryl Gardner, a marketing professor who studies buyer behavior at the University of Delaware. “Even people who don't have a job outside the home are finding themselves very busy,”

        Gator's concept is designed to complement its existing tenant mix. Bass Pro and Burlington Coat Factory will join a grocery, health spa and book stores. A National Amusements cinema will be built in the center of the mall on the second floor, with a third floor added to accommodate its stadium-style seating. The eight-screen Super Saver cinema will remain, as will the Beach and Time Out indoor amusement park.

        Other stores will follow, along with new-to-the-area tenants. Forest Fair has eight to 10 leases currently out for signature, Mr. Dunham said. He added that previously indifferent retailers have expressed a new interest in Forest Fair.

        Martin Mac Donald, a spokesman for Bass Pro, said coming to Forest Fair represents an “opportunity to kind of reinvent, to redevelop, and to be a part of an exciting new future.

        “We think this is going to be a dynamic place.”

        The reformatting also should better suit the middle-income demographics of the area, while taking advantage of growth in northern Cincinnati, Mr. Dunham said.

        The median household income in the 5-mile radius of Forest Fair rose to $50,285 in 1998 from $36,921 in 1990, according to Claritas Inc., an Arlington, Va., market research firm. The population advanced in that time to 157,875 from 151,520.

        “He has a good plan, and I think the concept is a good one,” said Roger Watson, executive vice president in charge of real estate lending at Firstar. Firstar financed Forest Fair's acquisition by Gator and Gator's president, James Goldsmith.

        “We just felt like we couldn't go wrong with him,” Mr. Watson said.

        When Gator acquired the mall, it promised to invest $10 million over three years. So far, it has invested about $5 million in the mall, but it plans to add another $58 million with the reopening in 2000.

        Some retail followers wonder if Gator couldn't be more inventive.

        Mr. Eichelbaum, for instance, suggested converting some of the retail space into office space. But Mr. Dunham said his firm dismissed such ideas.

        As it is, the plan is heady enough.

        “As far as our industry's concerned, it's one of the most difficult projects in the country,” Mr. Dunham said.

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