Sunday, October 29, 2000

Forest Fair: Mall on the Mend

New tenants, offerings hope to draw region's consumers

By Lisa Biank Fasig
The Cincinnati Enquirer

James Goldsmith, president of the mall's owner, checks out a display in the Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        After almost five years of lease negotiations, store relocations, and a parade of backhoes, Forest Fair Mall will finally get to tell the world its big fish story.

        The 11-year-old mall, once a riches-to-rags center that years ago fell victim to poor timing as much and as poor financing, is transforming into a shopping mall pledged to be unlike any other in the Tristate.

        Upscale tenants are being replaced with new-to-the-area merchants, with outlet chains and value stores. Its target market is growing from local to regional. And Forest Fair's massive size, 1.4 million square feet, is being slightly expanded.

        “We'll draw from 100 miles,” said James Goldsmith, president of the mall's owner, Gator Investments in Miami.

        Soon, we'll see. In November, Forest Fair kicks off Phase I of its $60 million redevelopment plan with the opening Thursday of Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World, a museum-quality superstore that sells and exhibits most things in the outdoorsman's lexicon. (Story)

        Other key openings and events include:

        • Burlington Coat Factory opened Friday.

        • Media Play will open Nov. 17.

        • Saks Off Fifth is scheduled to open in March.

        • Stein Mart Outlet store opened Wednesday.

        Meanwhile, Moore's Fitness is planning to open its new location next to Guitar Center in December. Metropolis, a nightclub operator, and Burbank's Real Bar-B-Q also are scheduled to open in December. Wonderpark Family Fun Center amusement park and a two-story cinemaplex are under construction as part of Phase II, next year.

        These destinations will join anchors Kohl's, Elder-Beerman and Bigg's, along with retailers such as Guitar Center and Frederick's of Hollywood.

        “What we did was look back at the original composition of the mall and then changed the mix to meet the market here,” said Mr. Goldsmith, whose company bought Forest Fair in 1996. “It's a moderate market, it always has been. It's not this area, it's the Midwest.”

        Forest Fair's reinvention is among hundreds occuring across the country as outdated malls struggle to meet changing consumer and retail needs. But this mall's story is a little different. Forest Fair never had glory days of long lines and full parking lots; it's a mall that began losing tenants and shoppers just months after it opened in 1989.

        Gator's involvement in Forest Fair represents a leap of faith, and a cautious development plan. It's a big fish to fry.

        “It just is a lot of footage to absorb,” said Stan Eichelbaum, president of local retail consulting firm Marketing Developments Inc. “But the (mixed-use, outlet) concept has proven successful in many markets across the country, and it is a void in Cincinnati.”

        Mr. Goldsmith contends that this new mix of value retail and entertainment should suit local, value-conscious consumers. Some local shoppers agree.

        “I'm happy to see the business,” said Darlene Walters of West Chester, who visits Forest Fair occasionally to shop Bigg's. “If the price is right, I'll definitely come this far.”

               Cruising through one to another developing store at Forest Fair and describing its future, Mr. Goldsmith doesn't like to emphasize the mall's history. Its unfortunate past was a matter of timing, he said, but it illustrates the significance of the mall's transformation.

        The original Forest Fair was an unusual mall — huge, with unknown upscale merchants as well as middle-market stores such as Bigg's. And it was within five miles of Tri-County Mall, which had just added another level of stores. Some critics think Forest Fair failed to define its market.

        But the mall's founder, Australian mall developer George Herscu, failed primarily because of money problems. He was overextended by the time his megamall opened in 1989. And Mr. Herscu didn't just own the mall — his firm, LJ Hooker Developments, owned anchors B. Altman, Sakowitz Inc. and Bonwit Teller. LJ Hooker's investment in the mall was $250 million.

        When LJ Hooker's lenders pulled out, it triggered a domino effect: Mr. Herscu, LJ Hooker, Forest Fair, B. Altman, Sakowitz and Bonwit Teller filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The stores closed months later.

        “Hooker, he thought people would come way up from Kentucky and all, and it just didn't happen,” said Delbert Jett, a resident of Fairfield who recalls the rise and fall.

        Since then, Forest Fair has been sold twice. Gator bought the mall in April 1996. It lost one major tenant — Parisian — but signed several new merchants.

        “You've got a great draw there,” said Roger Watson, executive vice president in charge of commercial real estate lending at Firstar, which financed Forest Fair's acquisition by Gator. “Some of these tenants are outstanding. For the first time you've got tenants that I think fit the market.”

Reel 'em in
               Forest Fair isn't limiting its business to the immediate area. But if the new merchants do finally fit the market, as Mr. Watson said, they are catering to one that is more affluent than that of Forest Fair's past.

        In a five-mile radius of the mall, the number of households making $75,000 to $99,999 rose 142 percent from 1990 to 1999, according to data collected by MapInfoData of New York. The number of households making $25,000 to $34,999 dropped 31.7 percent.

        Still, Forest Fair is fashioned to lure from afar. Stores such as Saks Off Fifth and Bass Pro were signed to do that. Said Larry Whiteley, manager of corporate relations for Bass Pro, “(We) do look at major metropolitan areas that draw from a long way.”

        Mr. Goldsmith does not downplay the enormity of his task. The original Forest Fair might have overcome or outlived some of its early issues — unacknowledged tenants and an underdeveloped market — but it still has to wrestle with an over-retailed culture, observers say.

        “America has twice the retail space it needs right now,” said Mr. Eichelbaum. Maybe, he suggested, Forest Fair should never have been built.

        Witness the sudden burst in creative development. Several new malls — including Beechmont Mall and Bigg's Place in Eastgate — are being converted into open-air centers. Nationwide, 799 malls were somehow transformed in 1999, outpacing the number of shopping centers built, 703, said Malachy Kavanagh, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

        “We've definitely seen the blurring of the outlet industry and the mall industry, sort of this hybrid value center.” Such concepts, he said, are pretty successful but still new.

And then, Phase II
               Forest Fair's fish tale won't be over after Bass Pro completes its days-long grand opening. Phase II is under way and will culminate in a year with a grand “mall reopening.”

        This finalization of Forest Fair's transformation will include the Showcase Cinemas, the Wonderpark Family Fun Center, a new food court, and some anchors yet to be identified. Until then, expect portions of the mall to be off-limits to shoppers and mall-walkers because of construction.

        “I think he (Mr. Goldsmith) finally defined what Forest Fair is,” said Mr. Watson of Firstar. “We're really excited to be a part of it. I think it finally now makes sense.”

        Of course, shoppers are the critics that count, and Mr. Goldsmith isn't taking them lightly. It took almost five years to carry Forest Fair from acquisition to Phase I, because Gator didn't want to sacrifice success for speed. Patience is paramount when fishing for the big ones.

        “We want to make sure it's complete in a manner that has longevity,” Mr. Goldsmith said. “It's a big job, you see.”

Bass Pro Shops bring outdoors indoors
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