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University Mall in Tampa poised — to do something

Sadly, Tampa's University Mall has become the shopping center most people don't think about.

JCPenney left years ago. Dillard's converted its store to a clearance center (and recently reduced hours to open at noon most days). Then, earlier this year, the movie theaters closed.

The mall fought back with a $10 million makeover, adding new furniture in the food court and corridors, family-friendly restrooms and a pirate-themed kids' play area, one of the best around, in my opinion.

But it hasn't been enough. Efforts to find another anchor yielded little. And while the mall still has a lot of stores, the parking lots usually look eerily empty. Without a Grimaldi's or Red Robin — or any sit-down restaurant — it's just not a destination like other area malls. Honestly, what's worse is that people don't feel safe there.

So I was intrigued to learn that University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and John Long, the school's chief operating officer, recently met with Lee Arnold, Rhea Law and a few other business leaders to talk about University Mall. Arnold is the top guy in Tampa Bay for Colliers International, a commercial real estate company. Law is a prominent land use lawyer and chief executive officer of the Tampa law firm Fowler White Boggs. Both have deep roots at USF and served on the board of trustees.

Law said the meeting focused on ongoing efforts to redevelop the entire area, not just the mall along Fowler Avenue, and served more as a status update. Arnold said through a spokesman that he didn't want to discuss the meeting.

Based on past speculation, anything could be possible, from closing the mall entirely, to selling it, to adding mixed-used towers — a plan that has been on the books for years. Dallas-based Lone Star Funds, which took over the mall last year, isn't saying a word.

We've got Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday and other corporate concocted shopping days. Add this one to the mix: Orange Tuesday.

BuySeasons, owner of buycostumes.com and other costume and party supply websites, coined the term to establish the Tuesday after Labor Day as the kickoff to the Halloween shopping season.

And it's taking it seriously. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that the company filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect the phrase. Apparently, the online retailer found that web traffic nearly doubles from August to the first week in September and wanted to capitalize on it with a one-day Halloween sale.

On Tuesday, buycostumes.com will have discounts of up to 50 percent on some costumes and Black Friday-esque door-buster deals dubbed "grave busters."

Big Lots' prominence rose big time during the recession as shoppers looked for deals on everything from futons to fig bars. Now, in the face of stiff competition and an improved economy, it's seeking a second wind.

The publicly traded company (BIG on the New York Stock Exchange) is upgrading stores nationwide and last week finished remodeling projects at 15 stores in the Tampa Bay area. Stores installed new flooring and ceilings, updated fixtures and improved the lighting. Food — a top-selling item for the chain — was consolidated to aisles near the checkouts, and the furniture section was expanded.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow her on Twitter at @susan_thurston.

University Mall in Tampa poised — to do something 09/02/13 [Last modified: Thursday, September 5, 2013 12:33pm]
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