Friday, July 15, 2011

Thinking outside the box keeps the Raleigh Springs Mall open despite the loss of its anchors

Despite the look of emptiness that pervades the mall, the owner, tenants and community activists all agree that the Raleigh Springs Mall is worth saving. (Photos by Wiley Henry)

        When the Raleigh Springs Mall first opened in 1971 on the north side of Memphis on Austin Peay Hwy., Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Woolworth’s, Dillard’s, and Sears anchored it. Countless shoppers throughout Memphis and the surrounding area started filing through the doors of the bustling mall until newer and glitzier shopping malls sprang up later and lured throngs. Sears, the last anchor standing, closed April 3, 2011.
      Despite the loss of its anchors and the influx of shoppers, the mall, a fragment of its glory days, still boasts a diverse group of tenants -- many of them locally-owned specialty shops -- such as Nailz By Kelley & The Nail Goddesses, Urban Expressions Bookstore, and others.
      The anchors are a fading memory, but a trickling of shoppers still find their way to the mall, which contains 46 stores throughout the 918,217 square feet of retail space. “I brought in 10 stores in one year,” says Tina Priestas, who manages the mall for New York businessman and owner Mike Kohan since taking over as general manager a year ago.
      With a little ingenuity and marketing prowess, Priestas is determined to fill the remaining eight vacant slots. “I’m already talking to, Family Dollar store, and Incredible Pizza,” she says. “But we’re never going to be the Wolfchase (Galleria) since we lost Dillard’s and Sears.”
      “The Raleigh Springs Mall means a lot to me,” says Kelley Alsobrook, owner of Nailz By Kelley. “Some of the nicest people I’ve met are in the Raleigh area. That’s why I moved my business here; there is a lot of potential here. As long as I’m in Memphis, this is where I’m gonna be.”
Jae Henderson signs her book for K. Shives at Urban Expressions Bookstore.
      Ken and Jacky Northfork opened Urban Expressions Bookstore in January. They first looked at Southland Mall and Hickory Ridge Mall, and made the choice to set up their bookstore at the Raleigh mall. They stock hundreds of titles by African American authors, including the book “Someday” by first-time author Jae Henderson, a freelance writer and marketing and media professional.
      The Northforks hosted a book signing for Henderson in early July, one of several they have hosted for local and regional authors. Jacky Northfork, a ghostwriter for 10 years, is expecting to publish her first book in September.
      The bookstore is just one of their businesses. They also co-own a real estate investment company, and Ken Northfork is the proprietor of his own graphic design company. But the bookstore is a love they hope to share with the Raleigh community.
      “Being from Chicago, I’ve seen communities rebuild,” says Jacky Northfork. “So the mall is going through a transition, and I want to be a part of something positive to bring the community back.” Raleigh, she added, has gotten a bad rap.
      Ken Northfork sees the mall as the catalyst for a new kind of mall, where businesses like his can still flourish without the anchors. He’s prepared to fight to save the mall and looking for more recruits. “We’re trying to get more people involved in the fight to keep it alive,” he says. “We want our children to cherish the memories that we have.”

Anchoring the Raleigh/Frayser community…

      After the Wolfchase opened in 1997 in northeast Memphis, malls such as the Mall of Memphis (built in 1981 and demolished in 2004), Southland Mall (the first enclosed mall in the Mid-South), and Hickory Ridge Mall (which underwent major renovation in 1997 to compete with Wolfchase and then was hit by a tornado in 2008) started declining.
      Priestas, however, is not dismayed because the Raleigh mall doesn’t bring in enough foot traffic. Thinking outside the box, she says, has helped to bring in more stores, community events for children, and much needed foot traffic.
      “My goal is to get the mall sold out and get some type of facelift,” says Priestas, who has sold real estate for more than a decade. Losing Sears “hurt us a little bit. Sears didn’t have anything to do with the mall, but it was the perception (of losing the last anchor) that hurt us.”
      The mall, an anchor of its own, is nestled in the Raleigh community in close proximity to I-40. The community itself encompasses 24 square miles with about 44,000 residents, many of them homeowners. Of the 15 largest neighborhoods in Memphis, Raleigh is the fourth income generator, according to reports.
      So why is there less foot traffic at the mall? Although the number of shoppers has dwindled over the years, Priestas believes the community still produces enough residual income and traffic up and down Austin Peay to lure shoppers back to the mall.

Fighting for Raleigh…

      State Rep. Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson, a firefighter and ardent community activist, has dedicated his time and resources to help shore up the Raleigh/Frayser community and, most importantly, the Raleigh mall. There are several initiatives on the table that he hopes to implement.
      One of them is a task force to look into revitalizing the Raleigh mall and the Austin Peay corridor. The others include renting mall space for wedding receptions, devising a marketing strategy for the mall, securing space for an arts theatre, luring smaller events to the mall that the Memphis Cook Convention Center doesn’t handle, tying the mall in with the Motor Sports Park, and dealing with the abandoned Gwatney Chevrolet site at 3099 Austin Peay.
      The Tennessee Department of Transportation purchased the site in the 1990s with purported plans to store salt bins, says Parkinson, founder of, a venue for citizens to voice their opinions, likes and dislikes.
      Parkinson, however, is still looking into TDOT’s plan for the site, but for now, he’s focused on growing and supporting businesses. Like Priestas, he sees the mall as an integral part of the community -- which is why he’s planning to launch Media and Business Solution Center to offer small business owners legal consultation, bookkeeping, and marketing ideas.
      “We’re open to ideas that will be outside the box,” he says. “The mall model of the ‘80s is pretty much dead. The best solution is to think what it can be used for along with retail.”
      Parkinson has stomped for the Raleigh/Frayser community since the 1990s. Since then he’s created, formed or founded such organizations as The Voice of Raleigh and Frayser Community Action Network, The Raleigh Fire Victims Fund & Donation Center, Toys in the Garden, The Fresh Starts Community Baby Shower, the Harvest Ball, and The Block Party for Peace, which is held annually and draws hundreds to the mall.

The Raleigh Springs Mall is worth saving…

      Preistas is gung ho about the mall’s future -- so is Kohan, the owner. The overall goal, he says, is to bring in more tenants, or merchants, and place a tenant in the old J.C. Penney box. He’s hoping the plan will attract more shoppers. He did not specify how soon his plan would be activated.
      “Every day we’re taking the extra measure to manage the flow of traffic at the bookstore,” says Jacky Northfork, who lives more than 10 miles from the mall. She and her husband are doing their part to undergird the mall.
      Although foot traffic may not move as fast as they’d like, the owner, tenants, and community activists all agree that the Raleigh Springs Mall is worth saving.

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