Trumbull officials look toward the future of Westfield Trumbull mall

Trumbull’s largest taxpayer is looking to reinvent itself.

With the retail industry still in flux, operators of Westfield Trumbull Mall say they are looking to step away from their retail-only foundation in search of new ways to boost foot traffic.

“Westfield Trumbull remains an incredibly viable economic engine for the area provided that the center evolves with the changing nature of consumer tastes,” said Marcus Reese, EVP of Public Affairs for Westfield Trumbull, in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media.

Reece said the future of the shopping center is going to be driven by a mix of development that focuses on customer convenience and experiences — and less on straight retail.

E-commerce strain

A survey by New York-based Harris Insights and Analytics found that 78 percent of millennials surveyed said they would rather spend money on “desirable experiences or events” than buying material items.

The continued shift of the industry has been most apparent among department stores and national chains primarily found in malls nationwide.

Year-to-date closure announcements have already exceeded the total recorded for 2018, according to New York-based Coresight Research. The research and advisory firm reported that U .S. retailers announced more than 8,000 store closures thus far , surpassing the 5,844 closures in all of 2018.

“Successful brands realize that they need to open retail stores to drive consumer spending both online and offline; and centers need to be the ideal home for these retail storefronts as well as places where people gather to go out to eat, see a movie and share time together,” Reese said.

Shopping malls nationwide have been weathering the storm of the “retail apocalypse” in recent years by mixing things up in their tenancy to reflect consumer demands. Connecticut malls have been no exception. The strain of competing with local stores, online retailers and smaller retail plazas has been evident with the recent listing of the Stamford Town Center for sale , which has dealt with high turnover and new competition with the opening of the SoNo Collection Mall in Norwalk .

With five malls in southwestern Connecticut, the state’s retail market has seen its share of changes brought on by shifting trends, according to David Lehman, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

“What was a tailwind has become a headwind and the same is true for malls,” Lehman said during Trumbull’s Business Appreciation Breakfast in October.

Prior to working in Hartford, Lehman, a former Goldman Sachs partner, worked in commercial real estate lending. Part of his work with the Wall Street giant included construction and development of retail centers.

“With malls, as soon as that occupancy starts to drop and traffic falls, it can become very vicious quickly, so you need experience-focused tenants in that mall quickly,” he said.

Town support

The future of the mall is still malleable, but Reese said town support will be a crucial point in the mall’s transformation.

“The community needs to share and support that vision — which is essential for long term economic health of the center and, in turn, its contribution to the tax base, local employment and the vitality of the local economy,” he said.

Trumbull’s planning and zoning commission approved a zone change for the Westfield’s land slightly more than a year ago, designating the mall’s 80-acre property a mixed-use commercial and business district .

The shift was was made in large part to allow the mall to propose plans to build 260 apartments on the property, which several residents opposed when it was first introduced.

Westfield Trumbull has not submitted any proposals for the apartments as of Oct. 30. According to Rina Bakalar, Trumbull’s economic development director, the zone change was also meant to help the mall plan for its future redevelopment.

“Fashion retail is on the decline in terms of the amount of brick and mortar space it will take in the future.” she said.“If (retail) was 80 percent before, it might be less than that moving forward.”

According to Bakalar the zone change also helps streamline regulatory processes to allow Westfield Trumbull to add new entertainment and experience-focused tenancy to the mall. The mall already has restaurants, an LA Fitness and recently added an aquarium.

SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium opened in July to mixed reviews from residents and animal-rights advocates, but it has also offered a taste of what the future may hold for the Trumbull mall.

Bakalar said mall operators and town officials have continued pursuing different entertainment attractions for the property. She declined to mention prospective tenants.

“We are going to look at the southern gateway there and the mall property comprehensively … and how it could help support the sustainability of that area long term,” she said. “Mixing that mall into more than just a retail environment is going to be an attraction for people to go visit.”