Business

Mall occupancy rates skyrocket

"While the national economy has slowed, business at the Kitsap Mall is booming. The plaza boasted 96.4 percent occupancy at the end of March - better than it had in March 2000 or March 1999 - and General Manager Dan Engelhard is predicting the good times will last.We're expecting our 2001 occupancy rate to be the best it's been in two years - that's even with a few expected merchant failures, Engelhard said.Garden Botanika and Lechters will close in the next 60 days, he said, but the mall likely will make those up the losses by the end of the year. Garden Botanika is bankrupt and closing all stores. The 115-store mall, sold to Macerich in 1999, experienced a period of relatively low occupancy when it was up for sale. Stores were reluctant relocate due to the mall's up-in-the-air management status and there was not an aggressive effort to fill the vacancies, Engelhard said. Leasing is a lot like farming - it's seed planting. You have to get in to a potential retailer and make your story heard, Engelhard said.He attributes the recent higher occupancy trend to an aggressive leasing team, the group that solicits stores to relocate in the mall. Negotiating leases often takes up to a year, which prolongs vacancies and causes the mall to lose income. To avoid vacancies, temporary leases are granted to businesses wanting to set up shop for a short period. Regular leases are about 80 pages long, while short-term leases are two or three pages.There are temporary stores for every holiday and season, Engelhard said. A Day by Day shop opens seasonally to sell calenders. Hickory Farms sells cheese and sausage gift baskets during Christmas and a costume store opens for Halloween. These stores fill vacancies and draw customers while the lease team works to find replacement businesses.In the last year, 10 stores have relocated into the mall or been completely remodeled. New stores include Pacific Sunwear, Bergman Luggage, the Okee Dokee Mongolian Grill and Gottschalks, which replaced Lamonts.The reason I'm confident we'll do well is because of the large tenants that are moving in, like Forever 21, Engelhard said of soon-to-open store. Rhiannon Nixon, manager of Picture People, said operating in the mall is helps the store draws a more diverse and larger crowd than it would in a different location. She attributes the mall's success in attracting retailers to management keeping up with the times.They've stayed very modern, she said. They've got Pac Sun (Pacific Sun) in to attract a younger crowd, Christopher and Banks for the parents and Gapkids - and of course Picture People, Nixon said.Engelhard said he is hoping for changes to the roads surrounding the mall that would better control traffic.We're hoping to get exterior traffic improvements on Randall Way and Kitsap Mall (Boulevard). We're also hoping the (State Route) 303 interchange will go through - these are much needed around town, he said. "

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