Main Street Center group cites Trumbull’s malls as a blueprint

When Patrick McMahon meets with officials from towns with struggling malls in Connecticut, his advice is simple: Look at Trumbull.

McMahon, the president and CEO of the Connecticut Main Street Center, has dispensed that advice to development officials as far away as Enfield, who were looking for ways to rejuvinate that town’s mall.

“They were struggling with high vacancy,” said McMahon. “And what we have been seeing across the country is that the trend is moving toward having mixed use malls.”

Connecticut Main Street Center is primarily enaged with helping towns revitalize their downtown areas, but McMahon said the challenges were similar between main streets and malls.

“Connecticut is a small state, and what we need is vibrance where there is infrastructure,” he said.

For malls, that infrastructure typically includes bus stops, access to highways, and acres of parking areas that are normally used for just a few days a year.

“On Black Friday, and maybe two or three other days a year the lots are full,” he said. “But for most of the year, it’s just empty space.”

Mixed development can help make use of existing facilities, if done well, McMahon said. The Shoppes at Buckland Hills, located in Manchester, is a good example, he said.

At just over one million square feet of retail area, Buckland Hills is almost exactly the same size as Westfield Trumbull. But unlike Trumbull, Buckland Hills has a ring of hotels and restaurants within a quarter mile of the mall itself. Hotel and restaurant patrons then form a natural customer base for the mall, he said.

Trumbull Economic and Community Development Director Rina Bakalar said Trumbull was also attempting to make the two Westfield and Hawley Lane malls into mixed use attractions, albeit on a smaller scale than Manchester.

“At our two malls, we are mixing entertainment businesses, attractions, events and more eateries to create vibrant destinations for shoppers and visitors, benefiting all businesses in the malls,” Bakalar said.

This so-called “retail-tainment” is the new normal in Trumbull, she said. She cited the new 17,000-square-foot SeaQuest that opened in July at Westfield, and is expected to draw about 300,000 visitors this year.

“At the Hawley Lane Mall, Xperiment VR, a virtual reality business, opened in June in the former Dress Barn space,” she said. Also, the Goldfish Swim School received approval from Planning and Zoning in June. In addition to swim lessons, Goldfish hosts open swim family events. It is taking approximately 10,000 SF of space along the internal rear corridor of the mall.”

Bakalar agreed with McMahon that large retail centers faced significant and growing challenges from online retailers. But online retailers can’t provide experiences like the brick and mortar malls can.

“We have more challenges ahead, and success will take time and diligence, but we are taking important steps that will position our malls for success,” Bakalar said.