Sunday, December 09, 2001

Forest Fair finally finds niche

'Totally different from the typical enclosed mall'

By James McNair
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FOREST PARK — The sand pit and Ferris wheel in the middle of Forest Fair Mall are now sunken in the annals of Cincinnati retailing.

        The whiffing of last night's beer, a not-so-special treat for customers entering the mall's nightclub wing, is now an olfactory memory.

        After 12 years of fiddling with formats and gimmicks, Forest Fair is finally blossoming into a pretty fair mall. What resonated with emptiness in 1997 today teems with interior face-lifting work, preparations for new tenants — and customers.

        The mall that originally staked its fortunes on oddities such as B. Altman, Sakowitz and Bonwit Teller is resurrecting strongly with market naturals such as Bass Pro Shops, Burlington Coat Factory and Berean Christian Store. Longtime tenants sense this make-over will stick.

        “I don't mind the noise and the smell,” said Debbie Harlow, manager of JB Robinson Jewelers, over the sound of a jackhammer. “It's deafening, but I know what's going to come out of it in the future.”

        Forest Fair's biggest new tenants didn't even wait for the mall's fifth-year owner, Gator Investments of North Miami Beach, Fla., to rehab the cavernous interior. The work will continue as Gator moves toward filling vacant stores between anchors.

        “We're spending almost $15 million renovating almost all of the storefronts and putting in a grand staircase,” said Michael Dunham, senior vice president of leasing and Gator's top executive at Forest Fair. “We're putting in giant billboards below the ceiling with fashion graphics. The entire Kohl's concourse will have hardwood floors.”

        After seeing its occupancy rate fall below 50 percent in 1997, Gator's turnaround plan for Forest Fair bore fruit in 2000. The clincher was persuading Bass Pro Shop to build its first Cincinnati store, the only Bass store for hundreds of miles.

        “That instilled a lot of confidence in the mall among the retailer community,” Mr. Dunham said. “Bass Pro Shops brings an estimated 4 million people a year, which puts it as the No. 1 tourist attraction in Cincinnati.”

        Gator also signed Burlington Coat Factory. The widely-known retailer filled a central anchor spot that had been occupied by nightclubs, which were shifted to a more appropriate end of the mall with its own parking garage.

        Also in 2000, small additions were built for the new Media Play and Off 5th-Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet stores. And Showcase Cinemas agreed to build a 10-screen theater that's opening Wednesday.

        “All of a sudden, once you got the first anchor, other anchors started coming,” Mr. Dunham said. “Then, with the entry of the cinema, it secured a lease on WonderPark, which brings in the younger kids with bumper cars, a restaurant and redemption games.”

Far from typical

        The changes make Forest Fair a retailing species unto itself.

        The mall has a hypermarket (Bigg's), a department store (Kohl's), outlet/discount stores (Burlington Coat Factory and Off Fifth), high-end specialty stores (Bass Pro Shop, Media Play and Guitar Center), locally owned stores (Nadler's Menswear), theaters (Showcase Cinemas and Super Saver Cinemas 8), a family fun center (WonderPark), a fitness club (Moore's Fitness Center) and a nightclub (Metropolis).

        “We're really trying to create a mall that is totally different from the typical enclosed mall,” Mr. Dunham said. “We don't want to repeat the tenant that's in a traditional mall like Northgate, Eastgate or Tri-County.”

        With 1.8 million square feet — more than any other mall in Ohio — Forest Fair still has a lot of space to fill. Casual Corner Annex, Dress Barn, Wind Gallery off Main, Shoe Sensation and Shoe Department have committed. Mr. Dunham said he would like to add high-end outlet stores such as Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer and Tommy Hilfiger.

        A new tenant, Steve and Barry's University Sportswear, opened its first Ohio store in Forest Fair the Friday after Thanksgiving. Store manager Steve Beall is optimistic about the mall's future.

        “Obviously, there are some very powerful retailers here that are driving a lot of traffic,” Mr. Beall said. “I see this place booming. They're doing some tremendous things here and are giving the mall a beautiful look.”

Restaurants coming

        The look is changing on the outside, too. Construction is under way for a Ryan's Family Restaurant and the Old Spaghetti Factory, a former downtown establishment that will mark its return to the Greater Cincinnati market in 2002 after a four-year absence.

        “We want people to do some shopping, go out to dinner, go to the movies and go to a nightclub,” Mr. Dunham said. “We don't want to give them a reason not to come here.”


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