Georgia Square Mall on the west side of Athens, Georgia is one of many U.S. malls that are facing struggles as consumer preferences change. Like many American malls, Georgia Square was once a hotspot for college students, teenagers, and residents from surrounding areas to come shop, socialize, and enjoy typical mall fare like Sbarro pizza and Orange Julius drinks.
There are about 1,100 shopping malls in the U.S. today, but according to Credit Suisse, a quarter of them are at risk of shutting their glass doors within the next five years. Georgia Square took a major hit last year in 2017, when Macy’s closed their Athens location in a 100-store national closure. As retail giants and common anchor stores like Macy’s and Sears rework and pare down their business models to account for changing times and online shopping, malls like Georgia Square are losing the customers who would have been drawn to the mall to visit those department stores.
According to Monica Hawkins, marketing director of the mall, it’s just an adjustment period. “Across the board, malls that have had Macy’s and lost them…everyone felt the crunch and impact.” Hawkins added that because Georgia Square is the only enclosed mall within a 52-mile radius, they have a unique advantage. Now that nearly a year and a half has passed since the closure, momentum is picking back up, according to Hawkins.
Still, many of the mall’s storefronts sit empty. But that isn’t a sign of failure, according to Hawkins.
“I could have every single space in here filled, but would it be the quality of tenant that the customers want? To have every light on and be at 100 percent? Yeah, but then you have crap,” says Hawkins.
Instead of filling the empty storefronts, Georgia Square is taking a different approach, with pop-ups that offer experiences rather than physical goods, and incubator situations, which give new businesses a chance to learn the ropes of operating a brick-and-mortar store in a controlled environment with short-term leases.
One of the pop-ups that’s found success with Georgia Square Mall is Little Athens children’s museum. The nonprofit children’s museum began their partnership with the mall this past January. The museum hosts monthly events for children and their families to experience a “little” version of Athens, with miniature versions of Athens landmarks such as Nuçi’s Space. Emily Crim, board member and volunteer coordinator for the museum says that the partnership is mutually beneficial for the mall, the museum, and for some of the other tenants. It gives Little Athens space and consistency, it brings recurring customers into the mall, and after their visit, Little Athens visitors can grab lunch from the food court and ride Gibson’s Little Red Caboose, which boards right across from the museum.
While Georgia Square Mall is far from dead according to many of its tenants, partnering with the University and improving the road infrastructure could help to bring more customers and businesses to the mall, several tenants and community organizers believe. One such organization is Athens West Corridor, which works to “maintain the success, viability, and growth of the Atlanta Highway corridor,” which includes the mall. Garry Moon, a longtime Athens resident and social media and promotions volunteer says that the organization is working with District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith to regain some of the relevance that the mall once had. NeSmith represents West Athens, Mitchell Bridge, Georgia Square Mall areas and was unavailable for comment.
The mall is open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. On Sundays, their hours are from 12 p.m. until 6 p.m.
On June 2, Athens West is hosting West Fest, a festival that will include music, food trucks, performances, a “junk fest,” and an opportunity for community engagement among Athenians and businesses. More information can be found on Athens West’s Facebook page: @AthensWestCorridor.
Gibson’s Little Red Caboose brings life and smiles to the mall in the form of “WOO WOOs” and “Chga Chga Chgas.” Here’s the story of the train: