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Leominster mall revitalization underway, drawing new tenants including entertainment center

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LEOMINSTER — The owners of The Mall at Whitney Field are making good on a promise they made to revitalize the property, with plans underway that include new carpeting, lighting and walls to give it a fresh look and the addition of a family-friendly entertainment center slated to arrive later this year.

“We feel really good about the next chapter and what we have been able to accomplish through this renovation,” said John Mulherin, Vice President of Hull Property Group, the company that took over ownership of the mall in December 2019. “We have been able to create a really good retail offering for the next use.”

Hull, which is headquartered in Augusta, Georgia, owns 30 malls nationally. Their specialty is taking declining malls and turning them into a profitable entity again by following “a programmatic formula” that has proven successful.

“When we first came up here, we talked about our process of buying struggling mall properties, some would even say failing mall properties,” said Mulherin, who has responsibilities that include Government Relations work. “There is not a more least-liked property in America than the enclosed mall. It’s got a lot of variables and the shopping patterns of people have changed and their interests have changed. You have to have a certain skill set in order to be able to operate these properties efficiently. It’s our niche market, and we have that skill set that enables us to do that.”
He said the tried-and-true formula they follow with each of the properties they acquire with the goal of bringing them back to life, so to speak, involves three steps – stabilize, transform, and reposition.

“If you’ve been to one of our properties, you’ve been to them all. It seems to be working,” Mulherin said.
Stabilizing a property such as Whitney Field, which is still referred to as Searstown by in-the-know locals, involves “having the right tenant mix.”

“You know who is going to be viable and you can tell who is not going to be viable pretty quickly by how they are inventoried and capitalized,” Mulherin said. “Sometimes you have to pull the Band-Aid off and get rid of some tenants that are not working as efficiently.”

Several stores have closed at the mall over the last few years, including Sears, the original anchor store and inspiration behind the former name; Macy’s, another large anchor store; Christopher & Banks; and others, victims of the perfect storm that is a major shift in the retail landscape and the pandemic. Burlington Coat Factory, JCPenney and Old Navy are the remaining anchor stores and Hull welcomes new and even returning tenants that will be a good fit in the overall mall landscape.

The second step in the formula, transform, is what recently happened.

“You have to bust the perception of failure and struggling,” Mulherin said. “What you see there with carpeting, lighting, and covering up the vacancies turns the negative into a positive.”

Pristine white walls have replaced empty storefronts, walls that are decorated with large colorful photographs and murals depicting landmarks and places in and around the Twin Cities including Johnny Ro Veterans Memorial Park, Sholan Farms, and the fire department in Leominster, Princeton’s Cornerstone Ranch, Mary’s Little Lamb statue downtown Sterling, and Mount Wachusett, among others, a celebration of all things local.

“A pull-down gate with a ‘for rent’ sign screams empty,” Mulherin said. “Put up a wall, paint it, and put up a community mural, that turns it into a positive. We can always bust that wall down and put in a tenant. We are sending a very clear message to the community that you have an owner operator that is investing in the community and helps keep tenants you have.”

He said this is a “critical piece” in the revitalization process and while he didn’t want to name an exact figure. Mulherin said it’s not unusual for them to pour upwards of one or two million dollars into a mall.

“It is pretty expensive to do this type of work,” he said. “We call that a sacrificial investment. It’s not tied to any income stream, and it really doesn’t add any value, it is all cosmetic and asthenic, but it is absolutely necessary and critically essential to do it. It is a very significant investment.

“We will raise ceilings a foot and a half in places to hang pendant lights, like at Whitney,” Mulherin continued. “It’s not the number of lumens it is the consistency of lighting that matters. That psychologically is safety, like a parking lot with lights. People walk in and say it just feels different, a lot of attention is paid to that transformation.”

He said that’s also why they put in lighter colored carpeting over most of the mall flooring as it “lightens up the property.”
“It helps with the atmosphere we are trying to create, transform it to this nice, light, airy property. We made a multimillion-dollar investment, and we want to operate it as good as we can to attract tenants.”

The last piece of the formula puzzle is repositioning the mall, so it is “stabilized and viable going forward.” Mulherin mentioned that when Starbucks puts in a location and “makes a 20- to 30-year commitment, they want to make sure what’s around them is not going to bring down their business.”

“No property works as an island, it works with the properties around it,” he said. “We want to provide opportunities to bring new tenants into the mall and also in the out parcels. The mall is a big property, if that property were to fail it would negatively impact everything around it. Our investment is meaningful to the other property owners around it.”

He talked about Gardner Outlet Furniture moving into the space where Macy’s used to be and “expanding their operation, a sign that they are comfortable and they are going to have a tremendous store,” Mulherin said.

Launch Entertainment franchisees Mark and Christine Emma are aiming to open the sixth Launch location in the state late fall once Gardner Outlet Furniture relocates in the space formerly housing a Toys R Us years ago. It will include trampolines, eight lanes of bowling, virtual reality activities, a ninja course and rock wall, dodgeball, basketball dunk lanes, a full arcade, birthday party rooms, Krave restaurant and Bar Hops beverage service, and more.

Opening a business in Leominster has special meaning to the family as Mark Emma grew up there. They currently live in Lunenburg with their 12-year-old son.

“After several years of searching for a way to help breathe life back into North Central Massachusetts, Christine and I finally realized that we were missing a safe and fun environment for friends and families to meet and come together year-round,” Mark Emma said. “Opening a Launch Family Entertainment Center, Launch Leominster, seemed like a perfect fit. After much analysis and many conversations with the mall owners we knew the former Toys ‘R’ Us building was the perfect spot.”

Mulherin said they are now in a position where they can “attract potential tenants back into the mall,” including Launch and others they are working with.

“Here, certainly, we wanted to do this much earlier but we were caught he pandemic,” he said. “It is a great testament to the community and the local leadership that the property has hung on throughout that. That has allowed us to come in and do the work and it is still viable. That’s through community support.”

When asked about examples of other malls that Hull has been able to resuscitate Mulherin mentioned properties in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, to name but a few where their formula has proven successful.

“It is all demand-driven and we are thinking because of the renovations and repositioning there will be additional demands and we are pretty good about opening that door,” he said of Whitney Field. “It is positioned properly, and it is something we can market to potential clients. We’ve got a great offering.”

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