By Natalie Simms
Rome’s retail landscape has seen several changes in recent years with the closures of Sears, Kmart, Payless Shoes Source, Pier 1 Imports and now the going-out-of-business sale at JC Penney. With changes ahead at Mount Berry Mall, plus the construction of the East Bend development bringing some 20 to 28 new retailers and restaurants to the area, there will be different shopping options this Christmas season.
The store liquidation sale began at JC Penney on Friday with permanent closure when the sale is completed, which is expected to take 10-16 weeks, according to Penney Communication Manager Kristen Bennett.
The closure will leave another big vacancy at the mall which saw the end of the Sears ‘wing’ in March 2016 that remains empty. Mall owner Hull Property Group hopes a new initiative called the American Dream Project will bring new growth to Rome.
“Retail is always changing and with a growing number of national retailers closing stores, we are experiencing another shift. But when one door closes, another opens and we are presented with an opportunity to reimagine the mall,” says Coles Doyle, the company’s marketing director.
“We know the community wants to have a strong mall and that there are many businesses thriving in Rome. We see the future of retail in small markets as being much more community-based. Regional and local businesses can fill the retail void left by national chains with locally owned specialty shops, boutiques, healthcare or fitness facilities, maker spaces, bakeries, other food ventures and more.
“There are a number of other kinds of experiences and businesses that can benefit from a physical presence and we are looking forward to reimagining the traditional mall.”
The American Dream Project is a small business initiative Hull created to help encourage small business success in small markets by connecting entrepreneurs with brick-and-mortar spaces, says Doyle.
“The mall has a lot to offer and we have some really great spaces. We want to work within the community to bring new concepts and ideas to the mall and the American Dream Project helps connect local businesses with the perfect physical space,” she says.
“As part of the initiative we have created a lot of tools and opportunities that can help a small business achieve success – whether they are opening their first storefront or expanding to their next location.”
This Christmas shopping season, Hull will host a pop-up contest to search for the ‘Next Great Pop-Up Shop’ as part of the American Dream Project initiative in Rome. Applications will go live in July and local businesses can apply to pilot a storefront for six weeks in November and December rent-free.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for an online business to try out a storefront or for an existing brick and mortar business to try a new location or market,” says Doyle.
“We are still finalizing the space and specific details of the search. However, we definitely want to spread the word about the American Dream Project and our desire to make the mall a home for businesses in the Rome community. We have long-term and short-term spaces that have so much potential.”
In the meantime, interior renovations continue at the mall and are 95% complete, according to Doyle. As for the Sears wing, there are no current plans for demolition at this time as had been proposed in the past.
“We are always contemplating opportunities for improvement and, while we do not have any concrete plans at this time for demolition, it is something that has been considered,” she says.
In addition to the changes at the mall, local shoppers will have other new options as the East Bend shopping center opens later this year. Exactly when that will happen unsure at this time says Bob Ledbetter, Jr., CEO of project developer Ledbetter Properties.
“We’re still under construction and just now getting the cobwebs off sort of speak from being sequestered and delayed from COVID in April and May. We are using June to see where we are at and hope to have a better idea in the next 30 days of who’s doing what and when,” says Ledbetter.
“We are moving forward and there are going to be some delays but we don’t know to what extent at this time. Some will open sooner than others and some later than others.”
Ledbetter says the development is up to 94% space committed with at least 20 new businesses including Chipotle, Panda Express, Texas Roadhouse, McAlister’s Deli, Fazoli’s, Discount Tire and Five Below. The two other primary anchors joining Five Below have yet to be officially announced. Ledbetter says they leave that up to the business to announce but does say they are two nationally known apparel retailers. Rumored retailers include Kohl’s and Old Navy.
When contacted this week, Kohl’s representatives say they have “nothing additional to share at this time” about a possible Rome location. Representatives with Old Navy did not respond to our question for information.
The developer behind Fazoli’s, which just opened a restaurant in Cartersville last week, says he’s pushed back his Rome plans a few weeks but still plans to open at East Bend. Construction could start in July or August, says Amit Patel, the developer of both locations.
Adds Ledbetter: “The restaurants will be opening first. We are working on a timeline for retailers now…we hope to make a fall delivery and will have a better indication on that in the next 30 days. All the tenants will be new to Rome, so that is positive.”