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Mall may be prototype for small centers // Citrus facility to open Oct. 15

The numbers don't seem to add up. The generally accepted rule of thumb is that a population base of 150,000 people within a 20-minute radius is needed to support a regional shopping mall.

Citrus County's population is estimated at 90,000. It won't approach the magic number until 2005, 15 years from now, when the population is projected to reach 144,000.

Yet, on Oct. 15 the doors are scheduled to open on the first enclosed shopping mall in Citrus County. The Crystal River Mall is being built by one of the nation's major mall developers, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. of Youngstown, Ohio.

Dick Greco, the Tampa-based vice president for DeBartolo, concedes that success will be harder to come by on this venture. The mall is a scaled-down version of a typical DeBartolo mall, and fewer tenants will mean less rent revenue.

"Frankly, I think we've probably gone a little bit overboard, because it's somewhat of an experiment," he said. "There's no question it's going to work, but we may not make as much money."

Nonetheless, DeBartolo fast-tracked the Crystal River Mall project.

It set tight deadlines, ultimately not met, for getting approvals from government agencies.

The day after the final permit was issued, bulldozers were knocking down trees. The one-year construction schedule, much shorter than a typical DeBartolo mall project, leaves little room for mistakes.

Why is DeBartolo, widely regarded as a savvy business operator, rushing to build a mall in a semirural county that is home to more than 8,000 cows?

For the developer and retailers, Crystal River was in the right place at the right time, they say. The mall is being built on the expectations of future growth and on the theory that certain smaller markets can support regional malls.

Here are some of the factors that led to DeBartolo's decision: Demand from department stores. DeBartolo officials have stressed repeatedly that they need to meet the October opening deadline or the anchor department stores may pull out.

Belk Lindsey, the only anchor that has confirmed publicly it will be in the Crystal River Mall, has been looking at Citrus County for at least seven years, an executive said. Bill Wilson, senior vice president for parent company Belk Stores Services Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., said that he has visited the area eight to 10 times, including a flyover by helicopter to evaluate it.

Lack of competition. Crystal River has little competition for retailers.

"There are quite a few strip centers out there, but there's a void of higher quality retail that the mall will be filling," Wilson said.

Officials at Kinney Shoes and General Nutrition Corp. (GNC), two of the 69 small shops that will be in the mall, concurred.

"There's no significant competition in the business we're in, which is health food and vitamins," said James Shallcross, general manager for franchising of GNC in Pittsburgh.

U.S. 19. Also, the location is on U.S. 19, which has gradually developed northward from St. Petersburg to Pasco County. Belk's Wilson said his department looked at Inverness and Lecanto, but decided that U.S. 19 had the most long-term promise.

Belk's first choice was a site south of the Crystal River Airport, where more commercial development has taken place because stores can draw on both the Homosassa and Crystal River markets, Wilson said. But DeBartolo determined that the site had too many wetlands.

Growth potential. The population growth all over Florida has attracted the attention of national retail chains.

"We saw some population forecasts for Citrus County that were

mind-boggling," said Randall Snyder, vice president and general manager of Kinney Shoes in New York.

"Certainly if you just looked at the map and said, 'Do you need a store in Crystal River,' you would say no, but you have to look beyond that."

Mall market saturation. As the suburbs, the traditional home for shopping malls, have been filled with malls, developers have begun to look elsewhere for markets. They have headed in two directions: the downtowns of major cities and smaller towns such as Crystal River.

"This mall is a scaled-down version," DeBartolo's Greco said. "It's something tailored to fit the needs of a smaller community. I think it's going to be very, very attractive but it's also going to be very, very different."

The Crystal River Mall will be less than half the size of many of

DeBartolo's mall projects. The department stores will be smaller and the number of smaller shops will be halved.

Greco said that DeBartolo is looking at Crystal River as a possible prototype for other areas in Florida. These smaller, air-conditioned malls could replace large strip centers, he said.

He expresses confidence that the smaller market can support the cost of an enclosed mall, even with fewer tenants, but only time will tell.

"We have never done anything like this," he said.

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