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Is Southwest Plaza a poster child for the changing face of the American mall?

There’s being creative. And then there’s going overboard. 

What’s going on at Southwest Plaza, a mall in Jefferson County, may be a bit of both. Construction is underway on a nearly 20,000-square-foot aquarium on the ground floor, a soft pretzel’s toss from the Dillard’s.

When it opens later this spring, SeaQuest Littleton will let paying customers mingle with 1,200 sea creatures, including snorkeling in a tank of sharks and stingrays. Mall management hopes you’ll stop by the food court for a Chipotle burrito on your way in and maybe select a new summer look at H&M on your way out.

“It’s not just retail anymore. You have to have a full experience,” Southwest Plaza general manager Greg Sims said of SeaQuest and other entertainment and experience-based businesses that have opened in the roughly 1 million-square-foot center’s walls in the past few years. “We’re trying to give people a reason to come out — other than shopping — and the shopping benefits from the visit.”

Entertainment isn’t new in American malls. Mall of America, in suburban Minneapolis, has been home to a 7-acre amusement park since the early 1990s. 

Photos of Southwest Plaza and the store fronts on March 20, 2018 in Lakewood, Colorado.

John Leyba, The Denver Post

Photos of Southwest Plaza and the store fronts on March 20, 2018 in Lakewood, Colorado. Customers are staying home and some standby retailers like Hallmark and Claire’s are going out of business, leaving holes in many mall corridors. Retail analysts for years have been saying that a transition to more food and entertainment was the key to keep regional shopping malls viable with guests, but Southwest Plaza is taking the cake. Since last Jan. one of its anchor spaces has been occupied by a bowling alley/pool hall/arcade called Round One, and come June it will be home to a 19,000 square foot aquarium called SeaQuest.

But recent Southwest Plaza additions, including a Yoga Pod studio, demonstrate that the metro area’s second-tier shopping centers are no longer just relying on standards such as arcades and movie theaters to entice shoppers. In an age when many national retail brands that were once stalwart tenants are shrinking or dying, and when competition from e-commerce and discount stores continues to cut into their bottom lines, malls are turning to the unique. Their survival could hang in the balance.

“It’s actually a brilliant idea what these guys are doing,” retail analyst Jon Schallert said of Southwest Plaza’s turn to SeaQuest. “It’s going to drive kids, it’s going to drive parents, it’s going to drive grandparents into the mall. It’s going to be able to pull from all over the metro area.”

Dominant regional malls — including Park Meadows and Cherry Creek — remain strong amid evolving retail tastes because they can attract exclusive tenants and command top lease rates, said Schallert, the owner of the Longmont-based Schallert Group. But secondary centers, which  draw shoppers mostly from the surrounding community, face challenges in differentiating themselves and remaining fully leased as go-to anchors such as Macy’s, J.C. Penny and Sears are closing stores by the hundreds.

“Those kind of cookie-cutter tenants that used to go to every mall in the marketplace, they are just not doing that anymore,” Schallert said.

In his travels across the country, Schallert has seen many malls trying their hand at bulking up on different entertainment and experience offerings to stay afloat.

“I’ve seen everything from BMX bicycle courses to interior playgrounds to trampoline events centers that are part of these malls,” he said. Bringing in unique, destination businesses such as SeaQuest is “the perfect thing for a mall that’s still in a good demographic area but is clearly not the dominant mall in a major metro area,” he said.

Photos of Southwest Plaza and the store fronts on March 20, 2018 in Lakewood, Colorado.

John Leyba, The Denver Post

Photos of Southwest Plaza and the store fronts on March 20, 2018 in Lakewood, Colorado.

Mall owners are well aware of the changing habits and tastes of American consumers.

GGP Inc., formerly General Growth Properties and the company that owns Southwest Plaza and Park Meadows, put out an investor report last spring that called the U.S. “over-retailed.” The report shows the country has about 24 square feet of retail space per capita. Canada, the next closest country on GGP’s list, features 16 square feet. China has 3 square feet. 

In an earnings call in May, GGP CEO Sandeep Lakhmi Mathrani  said entertainment-centric leases at the company properties will continue to rise, according to a write-up by EMarketer.com. In the financial quarter immediately prior to that call, apparel sales at GGP properties declined by 1.8 percent. Meanwhile, receipts from theaters, supermarkets and mall entertainment centers went up 6.7 percent.

Southwest Plaza officials reached out to SeaQuest about space in the mall, according to the fledgling aquarium chain. The company has three existing locations — in Las Vegas, Layton, Utah, and Fort Worth, Texas, Each is in a mall.

“That’s our business model. It is a natural partnership,” marketing director Elsa Macdonald said, noting that malls provide the real estate, parking and food, and SeaQuest drives foot traffic. “It just goes with the whole new outlook of making malls more of a gathering place and a hangout place; a whole different experience.”

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