2020’s Top 10 COMEBACK Retail Center Experiences: Nos. 1 thru 5

Al Urbanski
Real Estate Editor & Manager
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July is the month when Chain Store Age delights in picking the year’s Top 10 Retail Center Experiences. Experiences were put on hold by COVID-19 in 2020, but not so the innovation and imagination of retail center operators. We decided to shine a light on centers that are leading the way in creating safe, yet still-inviting, experiences to draw crowds back to their properties. These Top 5 COMEBACK Retail Center Experiences are now busy re-engaging their visitors with each other as well as retail.

No. 1 RIO – Gaithersburg, Md.

When the Peterson Companies and Circle Management spent $30 million to remake this 20-year-old lakefront center with a focus on food, entertainment, and gathering space, it readied RIO for a new retail era—and an historic pandemic. In 2020, socially distanced circles were painted on the grass using sports field paint. A driving range was set up for guests to hit eco-friendly balls into the lake. A hopscotch game leading to a bridge delighted both kids and adults.

Like every center owner, RIO focused on complying with government regulations, but it also conducted a 1,000-person survey to learn what consumers in their market area wanted. “All wanted an environment they knew would be safe, but a lot were willing to jump right back in. Some said they needed more time, and a small minority said they’d never come back to physical retail,” Weinschenk said.

No. 2 Easton Town Center - Columbus

That old proverb about getting lemons and turning them into lemonade? Easton performed a nifty COVID version of it. When it was clear that the Bon Vie restaurant in the Unity Pavilion was not going to open until after the crisis wound down, Easton hired artists to paint it yellow and festoon it with images of flowers and messages of diversity.

“Shutting down Easton was really hard. It’s been here 20 years and never been shut down. Seeing it like a ghost town was heartbreaking,” said Easton chief executive Jennifer Peterson.

Peterson and her staff focused on putting together socially distanced events that got Easton’s many fans flocking back. An Easter Bunny visit drew a line of 600 cars and its annual Movies by Moonlight series lived on. Borrowing further from movies, they created Easton Man, a bulky blue bulwark with a face mask who appeared in person and on signage, advising folks to “Be a hero. Wear a mask.”

No. 3 Halcyon – Forsyth, Ga.

Where malls of the ‘80s sought Macy’s and Dillard’s as anchors for their tenants, RocaPoint Partners and The Georgetown Company went in an entirely different direction when it opened Halcyon last year. They anchored it to a popular 14-mile hiking trail. Fit hikers and bikers started finishing off their treks in the center’s outdoor dining plazas, exercise areas and they kept stopping by throughout the pandemic.

“We figured we could be a drop-off spaces for all types of goods. Some blood drives were needed and we could do that. But even before we could fully re-open, people could walk and bike into our greens and stay distanced,” said RocaPoint principal Phil Mays.

Halcyon’s many restaurants were able to thrive because of the plentiful outdoor dining space. “Because Halcyon is so oriented to the outside, some of our restaurants posted record numbers during the crisis,” Mays said.

No. 4 Westfield Galleria at Roseville – Sacramento

The Galleria at Roseville’s entry for the COMEBACK list started by saying, “The safety of our guests is our primary concern.” But what impressed the judges more is the Westfield mall’s concern for people’s time and patience. Guests could list stores they intended to visit and get a “queue” of wait times for getting into the socially distanced stores.

Westfield’s COVID signage displayed a more serious tone than other Top 10 honorees, employing with black-and-white templates (plus the red Westfield logo) that are easily recognized and quick to read. Safety themed kiosks were also somber-toned, but filled with more information, providing information on how and when to wear masks. Line Pass, a digital queue system let customers get on a wait list or book an appointment at a store from their home, car, or even in the center.

No. 5 – The Avenue East Cobb – Marietta, Ga.

Poag Shopping Centers CEO Josh Poag said his company’s dealings with what he calls “The Great Accelerator” focused first on his team and on his tenants.

“The first couple of weeks, I was on the phone 100% with my team, and the leasing team was on the phone with our tenants, asking them, ‘What’s going on in your world? Are you able to do e-commerce? What do you need?’” Poag said.

Being an outdoor lifestyle center, The Avenue East Cobb wasted no time putting together a series of outdoor events. The first was Dinner & Drive-In Movie, which featured restaurant-to-car meal delivery. For the center’s grand re-opening in June, an outdoor fitness class was hosted by tenant Barre3 and other tenants put on a sidewalk sale.

“Frankly, what we started seeing was that our centers were the hubs of their communities. Word gets out, and people pour in,” Poag said.