MANATEE -- A group who regularly prays for the sick has added DeSoto Square mall to its prayer list.
New general manager Robert Tackett will take any help he can get to turn the mall around, even if it's divine intervention.
"A group of women send out cards to people that are sick and one said, 'We brought your name up, we're supporting you and every time we're meeting, we're going to say a prayer for you,'" Tackett said.
Given the new mall across the county's border taking with it the urban mall's higher-end department stores, Tackett has a big job ahead of him. But now that he has been at the helm of DeSoto Square for more than 40 days, he knows his quest is possible.
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Tackett once led the turnaround of a center in Louisiana that had lost all of its anchor stores. DeSoto, he said, can make it. The mall still has three anchors: J.C. Penney, Sears and Hudson Furniture.
For Tackett, the prayers and suggestions show that the community still cares about DeSoto Square, and no matter how much luster The Mall at University Town Center has, the newest mall on the block isn't for everyone.
"Our key goal now is to make people feel comfortable to come and visit and shop in DeSoto Square mall," said the former area director for Orlando Premium Outlets. "You've got to be appealing."
One of the busiest shopping days of the year, Black Friday, is Nov. 28
-- just a little more than three weeks away. Don't expect to see a berth of new stores open at DeSoto in time for the holiday season, but at least Santa Claus is set to arrive Nov. 14.
The stores that are opening are chiefly local entrepreneurs.
Tricia Freeman of Palmetto opened Central Bark last week inside the mall near FYE. Central Bark is an all-in-one stop for dogs -- grooming, premium food, accessories and adoption -- partnering with Forget Me Not Rescue to find forever homes for rescued dogs.
Freeman is a believer that DeSoto has its place, which is why she opened there.
"This is the original mall. This is what people grew up with," Freeman said. "I'm hoping that the parents will find out how affordable this mall is and bring their kids up with it. This is more of a community mall instead of an 'I want your money mall.'"
Maybe the puppies barking will get people to notice activity in the relatively silent mall save for the '90s-heavy tunes piped through the mall radio.
But DeSoto Square can't make any noise landing new stores until critical repairs are made.
Fixing the reputation of the mall includes physically fixing the mall.
Tackett says he whittles the list of 20 or so items down only for it to grow again. The repairs can take away time and opportunity to land tenants as Tackett addresses neglect or inexperience from the previous mall management.
If someone would have pulled the fire alarm at the mall, Tackett said, the strobe lights would have flashed but that's it. Workers were repairing the alarm on Wednesday during the Herald's tour of the mall with Tackett. Tackett also learned that several air conditioning units on the roof were turned off, explaining why certain parts of the mall felt warm. He still needs to replace some electrical signs, he changed the cleaning staff, and the security patrol is now in-house so Tackett can deploy them where and when he needs them.
Don't expect a total makeover and renovation anytime soon, unless every space is filled.
"It all depends on leasing. If you turn around Macy's real quick, it depends on tenant mix and the type of tenant," he said. "Every time you spend an investment dollar, you want a return on that investment. You make those investments smartly."
With so much cosmetic and mechanical issues to address, Tackett has his priorities set looking at the spring as a benchmark for more retailers in the mall. Recruiting for stores is a mix of Tackett and national leasing managers based in Mason Asset's headquarters.
Momentum without Macy's?
The leasing pitch is to sell DeSoto for what it is.
"One thing you want to sell them on is: This is a neighborhood mall," Tackett said. "This isn't a super regional shopping center. Everybody you talk to on a daily basis -- customers who come to the food court in the morning -- this is their mall. They're dedicated to the mall."
That's part of the mall's owners, Mason Asset Management, original plan in 2012 to turn the mall into a shopping center heavy on discounters.
The mall saw Macy's leave in September in favor of a new store at the Mall at UTC, and Jacksonville-based Body Central closed this month as part of a company-wide bankruptcy. That's on top of long-term vacancies in several pockets of the mall since Indianapolis-based Simon Properties sold DeSoto in 2012 to Mason Asset Management.
"It's hard to do long-term leases this quick," Tackett said. "We are working with some people."
Instead, spring 2015 is the next round of store openings that retailers target in Florida.
"We've had some tenants in here that were short-term leases that we worked with them to make a longer term lease. You work on some of those key issues first and get through the holidays, decorate for the holidays and make it look better and more appealing," Tackett said. "It's always difficult when you lose an anchor store like Macy's to create the atmosphere and the draw."
Macy's space will take some time to fill as the retailer continues to pay on its lease and utilities until April, Tackett said. Companies are expressing interest in the space, however.
"That doesn't mean we can't promote it, talk about it," he said.
When Hudson's opened in the former Dillard's this year, the mall only had about six months of all anchor spaces filled since Dillard's closed in 2009.
If this was baseball, Tackett would be playing small ball by batting singles and doubles just to get enough momentum before he brings some major deals home.
He looks at vacant clusters like the one at the J.C. Penney entrance and sees a strategy and opportunity.
"In that type of area, you look at what the vacancy is. Then you try to reach local tenants that will fit that vacancy to open the gate, clean it up and they can operate," Tackett said.
Tackett then would seek out a local business, say a coffee shop, and if they weren't ready to commit to expansion, he would sign them up for a six-month deal to see if the mall works for them.
"When I do a deal with a tenant, it's a partnership. And I want them to be successful," Tackett said. "I won't do a deal if I just bring them in and fill the space because that won't do us any good if they turn around and leave and tell everybody how bad it was. It's a partnership."
Tackett is in regular communication with the mall's owners in Great Neck, N.Y. Mason Asset Management handles the leasing side while Namdar Realty is the operational side.
"They're very responsive. To get stuff to happen, you've got to be intelligent and put work in the process and give them tools they can use to make decisions to make changes at the property," he said.
Asides from Central Bark, other retailers are finding a reason to commit to DeSoto Square.
Jay Jones of Bradenton is staffing his Shoepremacy shop that opened two months ago. He's into an underground but extremely popular market of basketball shoe collectors called sneakerheads. It's not a store traditional malls would think about going after in a small market, though it's popular in major metropolitan cities.
Nike and other shoe manufacturers smartly run Air Jordans, LeBron and other models as limited edition runs, creating an aftermarket for the shoes, pushing up the price hundreds of dollars depending on the sneaker -- making them a better investment than trading cards.
"We mostly sell exclusive shoes you can't find anymore, like shoes that have sold out in stores," said Jones, who has sold shoes since the fifth grade. A $170 shoe could easily go for $300, he said, showing off a recent pair of Air Jordans.
In Jones' shop, he buys, sells, trades, consigns and customizes sneakers. He relocated to the mall from a plaza after being in business for a year in an effort to get more customers.
"When I decided I wanted to open a business, I was looking for something that the area didn't have," Jones said.
A couple doors down, Colonial Cinemas District Manager Michael O'Brien took a break last week from working to get the DeSoto 6 Cinema ready to open this Thursday. The theaters wanted to open the day before Halloween, he said, but the work was more than anticipated.
Digital projectors are being installed, the mono sound is being ditched for 7.1 surround sound, two screens are being replaced, seats are being cleaned, plumbing being fixed and the theater is switching to Coke from Pepsi. The previous operator Teicher Theaters of Sun City Center closed his theater chain in August because that owner didn't want to install digital projectors.
DeSoto 6 will be a sub-run theater, which means that the movies it plays have been released for six to eight weeks before hitting the DeSoto screens, save for Disney films that have a longer lead time. The former cinema was a full-second run where movies came out 12 weeks before going to DeSoto.
"The demographic in this area, we'll do a little better with a sub-run theater," O'Brien said.
The theaters will be cash-only box office sales at first, charging $3 per person, $2 for students and seniors and $1 on Tuesday nights, O'Brien said. Online ticketing is anticipated. The concessions will be more affordable, he said, after the previous chain charged nearly $7 for popcorn.
In the food court, the former Sbarro will become a T.J.'s Pizza and Mexican Grill, and Tackett wants a smoothie company to take over a corner unit that lacks a kitchen.
More than a prayer
Asides from the prayers, Tackett feels support from the community.
He's hearing suggestions from the community and pursuing those leads. One customer even dropped off a list of 30 stores she wanted to see in DeSoto, he said.
On Tuesday, businessmen representing a national tenant measured the windows at the former Boater's World to see if the space fits the unnamed store's needs. The space was temporarily filled by a CrossFit gym, but if another deal strikes, it would take care of the largest in-line tenant vacancy in the mall at 11,000 square feet. Tackett wouldn't offer who is looking at the space.
"It will be a type of tenant that will draw customers in on a daily basis," Tackett said. The retailer does not have a presence in Sarasota and Manatee counties yet, he said.
Costco Wholesale is one of the more popular suggestions for the mall from the community, and Tackett is well aware. He passed along Costco's contact information to his superiors.
"I don't know if the contact has been made or has not been made, but they do have that information," Tackett said. "They most definitely pursue somebody like that."
A retailer like Costco, who is at the Westfield Sarasota Square Mall, would help bring people in to shop other parts of the mall, even with Costco itself being a one-stop shop.
"They will come and park their car and shop the mall before they get their groceries," he said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.