All across the country an iconic American symbol of success is finding it harder and harder to survive. Dozens of once crowded bustling shopping malls, are for lack of a better term, dying. Industry research predicts that 15% or more of malls could die in the next ten years. But one company thinks there is a path back to success for a Fresno Mall that is on life support.
About a year ago, Valley Public Radio uncovered a website from the property management company Omninet Capital selling a vision of a newly remolded and revitalized Manchester Center Mall including this slick video.
“Located in Midtown Fresno, the center of the San Joaquin Valley, there is a plan for a newly renovated mix-use shopping center: the new Manchester Center,”
The video also featured renderings of a modern look for the faded pink mall.
Well, that day has come and work on renovating the Manchester Mall is now underway.
Caught between changing consumer habits, urban sprawl, and strong competition Manchester is now largely empty or has been converted to office space. What stores remain, save the Sears, are small family run stores, or cell phone and shoe chains.
Ben Nazarian with Omninet thinks there is life in the mall if they can remind shoppers why they loved Manchester in the first place.
“And they used to come here and buy the ring for their future wife here. Or they would bring their kids here and be on the carousel. So there is a lot of fond memories of Manchester and we are trying to relive those memories once the renovation occurs,” Nazarian says.
Nazarian says the company is ready to invest a handsome sum in Manchester but when pressed he declined to say how much the company is willing to spend or how long they are committed to the project.
The mall does have a successful theater, but that has not led to moviegoers becoming shoppers.
Nazarian says he is not concerned about previous failed attempts to revive the mall, and thinks it can again brim with happy consumers.
“I think there is a lack of belief that anything south of Shaw should happen in Frenso that is good. We have laid out of vision with constituents. And they are excited by that. And they have signed on. And they want to be here,” Nazarian says.
But hopes don’t seem to exactly run as high among the two dozen or so remaining shops and the people who frequent the mall.
One of the more optimistic retailers is Tammy Novoa who has run a pretzel stand for the last ten years and believes Manchester can quote ‘rise like a phoenix’.
“I know we will never be as great as Fashion Fair or Riverpark but we need to get back to what we were eight years ago. (What was that?) When it was busy, busy, busy. You couldn’t sit down. You had costumers. You didn’t have to worry about making your sales goals. It was nice. That’s what we need to get back to,” Novoa says.
But even she heavily qualifies her hopes with one of the most frequently heard words…’If’. As in, ‘If they follow through’ or ‘If they can attract people back to the mall’. Other shop owners expressed similar feelings of cautious hope mixed with low expectations.
It’s not terribly hard to see the outward struggles of the mall.
Faded paint, outdated design, and broken escalators top the complaints.
But the mall is also suffering from a much harder to solve public perception problem that it is dangerous.
“And then you see people having sex in the front of the building. I have seen people at 1 in the afternoon having sex at the corner. I will show you exactly where they do it. And in the hallway over there,” says Rosemary Rojas.
Rojas says she has also seen drug deals and assaults in her three decades walking the mall.
She has watched the mall spiral from a popular destination into disrepair.
“It is a beautiful place. And I think that if they do what they say they are going to do. If they do the renovations they say they are going to do. Because they have been saying that for a long time. It would be wonderful. But if today it were raining there would be buckets up and down this floor and there would be downstairs.” Rojas says.
Omninet does not deny the strong negative perception of the Manchester Center and says they are taking steps to change it.
In addition to a complete renovation, the company offered space for free to establish a new Fresno police substation that they believe will improve safety at the mall and in the surrounding community.
Also, the Caltrans offices are moving deeper into the building.
That will free up another large, prominent space potentially for another anchor store critical to drawing residents from around the valley back through its doors.
However, they have a big task ahead of them to change the economic conditions that have led so many to consider the mall to be dead.
Renovations are expected to be finished sometime in August.