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This mall is an incubator for small business

Jose Moyano always wanted his own business. Working in an airport duty-free shop he learned how to buy and sell cosmetics. But with no track record, Moyano held little hope of getting a storefront of his own in the high-traffic regional malls where most big-ticket cosmetics are sold.

"I went to every mall and was completely ignored," recalled the Puerto Rican immigrant. "Tampa Bay Center was the only one that would even listen to me."

Mall managers not only listened. They gave him a huge break on the normally steep rent. They helped counsel him through tough times. And now, after two years of month-to-month existence, Moyano's Aroma perfume shop is doing well enough to be nursed into a five-year lease _ just like the big chain stores.

Store lineups in regional malls all look the same these days because about a dozen retail giants own virtually all the chains. But the ongoing shakeout in retailing and an innovative program conspired to make 150-store Tampa Bay Center a small business incubator for capital-poor experiments most other regional malls spurn.

In 1992 Tampa Bay Center is restocking 60,000 square feet of abandoned space with the likes of such hot national chains as The Limited, Structure, Jabberwokki and Athlete's Foot. But most of its new tenants

in 1992 are youthful retailers with not one whit of mall experience.

None of these retailing experiments had the resources to afford the glitzy mall surroundings before. And if history is any guide, two-thirds of them will fail. But with experts forecasting that many regional malls will become surplus property by the year 2000, such risky entrepreneurial testing promises to become more common as even the biggest malls struggle to keep their allure.

"Some of these stores are accidents waiting to happen," said Michael J. Barry, a group manager for the Rouse Co., which owns the huge mall next to Tampa Stadium. "But we're doing it to keep our mall fresh and different for our customers and because a full mall looks better than one with a bunch of empty storefronts."

The "temporary stores" strategy is a recession-driven expansion of an older Rouse program that offers mall space to 20 small pushcart retailers for as little as $66 a day. With many of the nation's biggest specialty retail companies shuttering marginal performers or going out of business altogether, Tampa Bay Center has broadened its pushcart program to storefronts.

Like all big mall landlords, Rouse courts the big chains to fill empty spots. But unlike competitors, Rouse now also calls on hand-picked, tiny independent retailers to see if they want help in trying to step up to a big-traffic, big-rent mall.

A few years ago Tampa Bay Center would take a chance on one or two young merchants like Moyano. But with the recession accelerating store turnover, Tampa Bay Center now has eight. It may be a retailer who succeeded in a single strip center such as Hot Flash, a jewelry shop from Wauwatosha, Wis., which specializes in unusual holographic artwork. Or it could be a small manufacturer like Skinz, a Clearwater workout-wear maker looking for a new vehicle to boost production.

"We want unique people willing to take a risk," said Barry. "We do not paint this as some easy path to prosperity because it is not. It's long hours, hard work and a constant uphill battle in a very tough retail climate that is getting tougher. It's really a four-month test to see what they can do in a mall environment."

Rouse's standard phone book-size lease is cut to four pages. In return for slash-priced rent and exemptions from many other standard charges, the temporary retailer agrees to fold up fast if projected sales volume goals are not met.

Rouse's goal: nurture these temporaries into new full-rent-paying tenants.

The retailer's initial investment is seldom more than the cost of inventory plus as little as $9,000 in up front cash. Monthly rent initially is $2,000 to $4,000 a month, one-third to one-half that charged a typical mall chain store. And the mall often kicks in fixtures, decor and visual display tips.

"Most people could not tell these are temporary tenants by looking at them," said Lori Donahue, the mall's manager of retail operations.

Indeed, Skinz moved into a vacated apparel shop done up in the latest track lighting, polished walnut floors and 14-foot ceilings for little more than the cost of cash registers and inventory.

Like many apparel manufacturers, Skinz is trying to increase production without extending credit to more cash-strapped retailers and playing to whims of retailers' fickle buyers.

"Times being what they are, there is an advantage for manufacturers to be in retailing these days," said Skinz co-owner Paul Polgar. "This way we get 100 percent control of how our products are sold. We don't have to fight to get displayed in the front window. We own it."

Some of Rouse's full-sized storefront tenants (who are now paying full rent at Tampa Bay Center) actually grew out of pushcarts. Annie's Baby Boutique started that way. So did Software Plus, a new-style full-service personal computer store and training center that once only peddled software from a pushcart.

B-Cause is a recent refugee from failing Floriland Mall.

The 3-year-old apparel store that caters to the MTV set was trying to survive in a mall plagued by more empty storefronts than occupied ones. Owners were wooed to Tampa Bay Center where they saved a remodeling bill by moving into a store slickly furnished by a Dallas-based apparel chain that had pulled out.

"We initially planned to stay just until Christmas but it's working out," said co-owner Latina Olson. "This program gives local merchants a great opportunity to open in what I think is Tampa's best mall. But I must admit it has been tough working 12-hour days seven days a week."

Barry came across Gallery 92 in a Daytona Beach strip center. The store sells frameless art for interior decorating made by chemically glazing posters onto custom cut glass. The store's creators found the process makes bright colors deeper and more vivid. It was classy enough that Walt Disney World commissioned several pieces cut in the shapes of Disney cartoon characters. Tampa Bay Center gave Gallery 92 a prominent corner location so the hanging artwork is seen by passing crowds.

"We had been trying to work our way into malls for some time but they all wanted an arm and a leg," said Gallery 92 owner Bill Saitz. "And they would talk only if we committed to opening several stores at once, which we could not afford. Now that we're open here other malls are coming to us with deals."