By the end of 2020, Bradley Square Mall will lose one of its founding anchor stores — JCPenney — which has been a pivotal player in the mall's shopping experience since its 1991 opening.
On May 15, JCPenney filed for bankruptcy and the Bradley Square Mall location is one of 800 stores targeted for closing by the giant retailer. When JCPenney closes around Christmas, this will leave a 43,000 square-foot hole in the heart of the mall, but that loss has not shaken the vision and determination of mall General Manager Stacia Crye-Shahan and mall ownership, Morrison Properties.
“The JCPenney bankruptcy represents a new hurdle, although one that has been anticipated,” Crye-Shahan said. “Much like with Kmart and Sears, mall ownership had already begun talks for potential replacement opportunities until COVID-19 hit and literally changed the world; at least, temporarily.”
Crye-Shahan said in the face of COVID-19, all the tables, chairs, benches and child carts that normally populate Bradley Square have been removed in order to eliminate touch surfaces that pose as risks for potential COVID-19 spread.
To protect the health of mall visitors, touch surfaces throughout the mall are sanitized each morning and then with every housekeeping rotation. The vending machines throughout the mall are cleaned once a day and have signage indicating that.
During this ongoing pandemic, Bradley Square Mall is at 77% occupancy (a vacancy rate of 23%, which is more than double the average mall vacancy rate in the U.S., according to Kevin Cody, senior consultant at CoStar Portfolio, in a U.S. News & World Report article), but in terms of filling those spaces, Crye-Shahan said, "All things are on the table."
Crye-Shahan said she would like to fill the pending vacancy with retail, but the reality is that these days mall shopping centers take several different approaches to filling space on their properties. A few of the examples that Crye-Shahan mentioned — based on the experience of other malls — are larger family entertainment centers, soccer complex, call centers, further education schools and even apartment buildings.
“You have to see who’s doing deals and where they’re doing deals, and you have to adapt to that,” she said. “We just have to be open to what we can do with the real estate that we have.”
Crye-Shahan said the JCPenney space is approximately 43,000 square feet, and most big-box retailers are looking to fill around 20,000 square feet. So, it is very possible that the front of the mall will change dramatically in the future if two retailers decide to move in and build exterior entrances.
Since purchasing Bradley Square Mall, ownership has invested millions of dollars, Crye-Shahan stressed.
This includes additions and improvement like:
• Total renovation of the mall which included interior, exterior, landscaping, parking lot, mechanical, décor and a myriad of other improvements in 2013;
• Construction of the AMC movie theater in 2012;
• Immediately after the Sears closure, backfilling that space with Dunham Sports in late 2013; and
• Investing in countless tenant-improvement investments with both national and local business owners, ensuring that the mall could provide abundant and varied shopping options to the community.
Crye-Shahan is closing in on her 20th year working at Bradley Square Mall, but it’s not just the mall she is working for: she’s also working for the community.
“We view the mall property as the center of retail not only in Bradley County, but in the extended trade area,” she stressed. “We are committed to making every effort to keep the mall not only viable, but prominent in the community.”
She added, "Bradley Square Mall is proud to be the current home of 15 locally owned and operated businesses … and in a lot of ways, I feel like we are an incubator for local retailers. You get built-in traffic, and you get to build your business up.”
Threads-Embroidery & Screenprinting is one example among others that started out in Bradley Square Mall that eventually relocated to accommodate their expansion.
When asked about the benefits of shopping at the mall versus online retail, Crye-Shahan emphasized that the mall provides "a multi-stop shopping experience" where you have “the ability to see, feel, touch and know what it is you’re buying … but also, you’re supporting local businesses.”
Great American Cookie and even GNC are locally owned franchises in the mall, and then there are fixtures of the Cleveland community like Hixson’s, which has been in business for 50 years and has been a part of Bradley Square Mall since it opened.
Unfortunately, the mall has seen some additional negative impacts from the onset of COVID-19. The Church of God of Prophecy has decided to close all its retail chains at Bradley Square (EstherLILY and White Wing) and in Chattanooga, and Axetreme Arena could not recover from the loss in attendance due to the pandemic. Additionally, mall-sponsored events like Storytime and Superhero Saturdays are canceled indefinitely because of COVID-19.
However, the mall is seeing some steps in a more positive direction in the immediate future.
AMC Theaters recently announced that on Wednesday, July 15, the entertainment chain will open approximately 450 theater locations around the country. These sites represent more than 90% of AMC's business.
A new concession-type food location called The Sweet Shop, featuring slab ice cream, is set to open later this year. This store is owned by the same people who own Pandemonium Arcade, and they will have hot dogs, pizza and more to go along with their ice cream.
In July, O.K. Maguey is moving to one of the end caps at the newly constructed end of the mall which, according to Crye-Shahan, puts them in the heart of the traffic.
It’s even possible that Santa might set up shop in the EstherLILY and White Wing space this year, providing a different ambiance to the meet-and-greet with Jolly Ol' Saint Nick this holiday season.