Macy's replacement still up in the air

By Billy Corriher

Strolling through Southlake Mall, most customers today probably wouldn't even notice the empty space where Macy's once stood. The mall has covered up the vacant department store space as it has worked to find its replacement.

McDonough resident Marty Cobb said he's been coming to Southlake to shop for years, and he's almost forgotten Macy's was ever in that spot.

"I guess there are so many other stores, I just didn't think about it," he said.

Since the store was vacated in April 2003 after Macy's and Rich's merged, the city of Morrow and General Growth Properties, the company that manages the mall, have been looking for a store to take its place.

General Growth nearly had a deal with Dillard's to move into the store, but the department store recently said it wasn't interested.

Morrow City Manager John Lampl, who has been involved in the negotiations, said he thinks the Dillard's deal isn't dead yet.

"I don't think it's over," he said one year after Macy's shut down. "I think we're just negotiating."

And though Lampl said there aren't that many large department stores in the market for new space, he thinks the mall needs to examine its other options.

"There's other (stores) out there, and we need to start looking at them as Plan B," he said.

Retailers will tell you that the importance of anchor stores is they give identity to a mall and draw a group of shoppers who are responding to national or regional advertising.

Often, these anchors because they have larger budgets can attract special events to the store that draw crowds. In turn, once the crowds are in the mall and in the mood for shopping their presence will benefit the smaller shops.

In Clayton and Henry counties, many anchor stores have chosen to pick one or the other county, but not both. In both counties other specialty shops have taken advantage of the crowds to the anchor stores by locating within visible distance of these anchors.

For example, Southlake has a Sears store on one end, a JCPenny in the middle and Rich's on the other. Macy's had formed the fourth leg of the anchoring. Over in neighboring Henry County there is a Belks store and a Kohl's.

Macy's isn't the only area store that's still vacant. According to Dorey Market Analysis Group, the vacancy rate for retail space in Clayton County is 8.7 percent, compared to 7.5 percent for Henry County and 7 percent for Fayette County.

Chris Shaner, senior analyst for Dorey Market Analysis Group, said many large retail spaces aren't occupied in today's economy.

"With numerous closings throughout metro Atlanta and only slight improvements in the economy, such large spaces will be tough to fill," Shaner said.

There is also a lot of competition with other malls and open-air retail centers in metro-Atlanta, Shaner said.

But Lampl said stores at Southlake and in Morrow are still performing well, considering the rough economy.

"Our retail centers are still thriving," he said. "Most of them are in great shape."

Lampl said Morrow will also see an economic boost from the upcoming Gateway Village project, which includes federal and state archives and a hotel/convention center.

"You've got to trust the market," he said. "This too shall pass."

In January 2003 when the announcement of the closings of the five Macy's in metro Atlanta Atlanta Business Chronicle quoted an expert in saying Dillards might be interested in the space.

Dillard's already operates four stores in Atlanta, mostly at Atlanta's newer malls, the Chronicle said. But retail experts say the Arkansas department store operator has long been interested in gaining a stronger foothold in the Atlanta mall market, the Chronicle reported.

"You also have to remember that Federated Department Stores Inc. has been the retail chain that has blocked Dillard's from coming into a lot of Atlanta's malls, so this opens up the floodgates," Mike Neal, a retail broker with The Staubach Co. in Atlanta told the Chronicle.