Luring big business not an easy job

Centennial Mall manager says it's difficult to fill space

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Realistically, the future of business in Craig relies on numbers.

At least that's the rationale of Centennial Mall property manager Vicki Hall.

And she should know. For the last 12 years, Hall has made countless calls to lure big box stores to do business at the local mall.

But, as she's found time and again, it takes more than a friendly invitation and even a supportive community to supply a small town with all the sought-after amenities of a big city.

"We're never going to get the Gap or a Hobby Lobby here," she said of a few big stores locals have expressed interest in having in Craig. "If you're a retailer, it all comes down to the numbers. If that's the type of thing people want, they need to be realistic about our area. If we had all those stores, this wouldn't be Craig."

According to a the Critienden Directory, a well-worn book Hall uses to pinpoint retailers' premise for setting up shop in an area, a town with the population of Craig can't compete for big stores like the bigger markets.

For example, a Hobby Lobby requires a building of at least 50,000 square feet and a population of 100,000 people in three square miles.

Safeway, the most spacious building in the mall, sports a 35,000 square-foot complex and Craig barely hosts a population of 10,000 with little more than 13,000 people in Moffat County.

Besides lots of people, big stores also want a population with lots of money to spare and the guarantee of traveling shoppers from nearby areas.

A Levi outlet store requires a million people within an hour's drive before its officials will consider opening a store. Talbot's wants customers to have a median income of $80,000 a year in the areas in which they choose to open up.

And with the economic downturn, some stores are waiting to start up in new locations. Conversation with officials from Kohl's store said they weren't considering opening up stores in secondary or smaller markets for at least five more years.

"Businesses want consumer confidence," Hall said. "I've looked at bringing in businesses from so many angles but until our numbers increase, I don't see a whole lot changing in that direction."

On a typical Wednesday afternoon in the mall, shoppers are few. Some merchants said those numbers will rise with the upcoming hunting season and other festivities.

Terri Scott remembers when the mall once swarmed with shoppers.

It's not the same today.

"People say, 'What mall?' You blink, you miss it," she said.

However, it was a different story when Scott held a consignment shop in the mall about three years ago. Recently, she and co-owner Lori Bartee opened up a consignment shop again, named Quality Consignment and are accepting and selling more than children's' clothes this time.

Reselling formal wear for high school dances and tapping into the market of bigger and taller sizes for men and women and costumes have so far been successful.

After opening the doors less than two weeks ago, the duo has accepted clothes from 72 consignors. When the store closed three years ago because the husband of a then partner lost a job, the store sold clothing brought in from a whopping 400 consignors.

It's that kind of walk-through business that keeps all business in the mall healthy, Scott said.

"So many people don't know shops are in here," she said. "I had a customer say she was surprised by how many shops are in here because she hasn't been here in two years. I think there's a lot more here in the mall than people think."

Besides, the small market stores offer something that larger stores can't, merchants said.

Some of those perks include personal service and variety of products.

According to John Papoulas co-owner of the mall's Dollar Craze, each item in the store is handpicked.

"We try to keep prices as reasonable as possible," he said of the store located in the mall since 2000.

Although a Family Dollar store recently opened up in town, it hasn't proven to be much competition against products offered at Dollar Craze, Papoulas said.

"We're not really in competition with anybody else," he said. "Our sales have been better every month this year than last year. I think it helps to get the walk-through traffic."

Indeed, the mall currently operates at a 96 percent occupancy rate. Only once on Hall's watch about two years ago has the mall been filled 100 percent with shops. Hall estimated that if Craig's population reached 14,000, the mall could be more self-supporting.

The mix of mall shops may not be what people want, Hall admitted.

But in hard times it's important to fill spaces. And the trend at the Centennial Mall to offer more services versus retail shops is holding weight in larger markets.

One mall space is occupied with the New Creations Church and a couple of others host rehabilitation services.

Over the years, Hall also has investigated other options such as bringing in a branch of the U.S. Post Office, a movie theater and a bowling alley.

The best mix of business usually occurs as new people move into the area, she said.

Their fresh eyes seem to pick up on services needed in the community that longtime locals might have overlooked.

"Sometimes somebody from the outside may see possibilities that we miss," she said.

Ultimately, it may be up to the small stores and individual operations to make sure local residents are getting the products they need.

"The local people are going to have to step up if they want to see some of those products in here," she said. "You got to give them credit that they're the ones bringing the service to the community."

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or craigdailypress.com.

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