After managing stores in Gateway Mall, Sunshine Mall and Seminole Mall, Lee Preble developed an instinct for the fate of Pinellas County's older, vintage 1960s malls.
Sunshine Mall, now an apartment complex in Clearwater, was the first to go. Then St. Petersburg's Gateway Mall was bulldozed and replaced with a community shopping center. Could Seminole Mall, which had its own ups and downs over the past decade, be next?
"Seminole Mall will not close because this is downtown Seminole," said Preble, who returned to manage My Gift Cottage there. "The crowd that shops here is locals. Some local independent tenants have been here for decades."
Perhaps it's fitting that the youngest city in Pinellas County (founded at the height of the nation's mall-o-mania in 1970) clings to what is now the county's oldest mall as its hub and principal icon.
Seminole Mall remains a favorite topic of discussion in this bedroom community, where retailing and service businesses are the business community. The latest round of fretting came when Waccamaw's HomePlace went out of business nationally and left a gaping hole.
Preble felt compelled to put a sign at the entrance of My Gift Cottage to assure customers his place won't be next.
"Attention Shoppers," stated the note. "We are not going out of business."
Such hand-wringing is odd. Just three years ago, Lamar Cos., a Morristown, N.J., company that specializes in fixing distressed shopping centers, bought Seminole Mall for $17-million. Today the place is remodeled and close to full: It was 96 percent leased before Waccamaw's departure.
Even before AMC carried out its decision to close its movie theaters at the mall, Lamar signed up a replacement theater operator. The mall owners think they also might be close to a solution for its old theater inside the mall that serves as the management office.
And Lamar doesn't expect much trouble finding a replacement for Waccamaw _ probably in the form of an off-price apparel chain such as TJMaxx, Marshalls or Ross Dress for Less.
That should produce a collective sigh of relief locally. Seminole is a town that measures prosperity and civic pride in filled storefronts at the mall. Maybe it's because the town never had a downtown to save.
"People move to Seminole for the schools and recreation. But everybody wants more stores and nobody wants to see even one close," said Jimmy Johnson, executive director of the Greater Seminole Area Chamber of Commerce. It represents the business community in an area of 60,000 residents, about 16,000 of whom now live inside the city limits of Seminole.
Despite the city government's appetite for growth by annexation, the business community is small town by choice.
After leading off with Superior Surgical Mfg Co. Inc., the list of the 15 local manufacturers drops to a screen door maker with annual revenues of about $1-million. Business leaders haven't made a cause of replacing two small hospitals that closed a few years ago. Johnson could not recall any concerted effort to recruit major new employers such as corporate regional offices. Instead they've been fighting an uphill battle to get someone to build their town's first hotel.
This is a town of residents who either retired or work somewhere else and don't seem to mind driving somewhere else for serious shopping.
"Seminole is a bedroom community, plain and simple," said Larry Cunningham, senior vice president of the First Home Bank. "I think it's going to stay that way."
So most civic concern goes into the schools, public recreation and the shopping situation. Even landing a chain store such as Home Depot or Burlington Coat Factory has been cause for celebration.
The pursuit of more retail has been intertwined with the city since its birth.
The 1970 referendum in which voters approved the city's creation was staged inside Seminole Mall, which later housed city hall for a time. The most visible figure in the formation of the town was Jesse Johnson, the city's largest landowner. He built the mall, which his descendants sold in 1998.
"One of the driving forces behind creating the city was to become a tax haven and control our own destiny rather than be reliant on the County Commission" for city services and land development controls, said former Mayor Holland Mangum, a behind-the-scenes figure in the incorporation movement.
"We didn't want to be swallowed up by Largo, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg or even Madeira Beach. They were all moving their city limits our way. We had to drive to other cities just to go to Publix or Winn-Dixie."
The heart of Seminole that once was filled with orange groves is now lined with strip shopping centers. The city initially had no property tax or utility tax, getting most of its revenues from state revenue sharing. Even today the city uses its lower property tax rate as a tool to win annexation votes from residents of the unincorporated area.
The county's stewardship of valuable retail zoning remains a sore point. Back in the early 1970s when the county made 113th Street a major thoroughfare, commissioners said no to new retail zoning along what they declared a scenic corridor. The county held firm against any retail zoning incursions by the city. But within a short time, county officials approved their own exceptions: an Albertson's supermarket and a bank that numbered a county commissioner among its officers. Even today city officials are miffed the County Commission turned down plans for a CVS drugstore that would have been across the street from Seminole Mall.
"We don't want to be considered just another gas station stop for people on their way to the beach," said Mangum.
The city recognizes its retail vision faces plenty of challenges. There are still some big empty storefronts lingering, including a Kash n' Karry supermarket on Park Boulevard near Seminole Boulevard that was closed years ago. Also, almost all the vacant land is gone. Two of the newer retail developments required the pricey and politically sensitive uprooting of mobile home parks.
Although civic leaders point to younger families moving in to take the place of aging retirees, the future of retailing looks much like the present. Retirees and baby boomers remain the biggest sources of new residents. Meanwhile, the city's baby boomers will be aging into their retirement years in the next two decades.
Seminole Mall hasn't been a true mall for some time. While regional malls like Countryside and Tyrone Square grew in size and ambitions in the 1980s and 1990s, Seminole Mall went the other way: evolving into what's called a community shopping center.
They are typically stocked with moderate-price stores, where families and retirees buy the basics and services. For example, name another local mall with neither a shoe store nor a music store. Or one that still has a grocery store and drugstore.
The new owners at Lamar also took the unconventional step of keeping 15 percent of the rental space for services like a barbershop, a florist and a law office that are more likely to be found on a small town's Main Street than in a mall.
The opening in 1988 of much bigger Largo Mall 5 miles north sucked much of the growth potential from Seminole Mall. But Seminole Mall still has its own loyal clientele.
"We expected to lose a lot of business at our Largo Mall store when we opened at Seminole Mall," said Conrad Syzmanski, president of Beall's, the Bradenton-based department store chain. "It didn't happen. These two centers serve completely separate markets now."
Local teens complain Seminole Mall has little to offer them, and none of the hot retail shops for their generation are available at regional malls. The chamber has even been lobbying the Gap Inc. and Old Navy for outlets, but those chains prefer regional malls that are bigger teenage hangouts.
Then there's the unanswered question of Seminole Mall's future ownership.
"Typically, we stabilize a center and hold on to it for three to five years" before trying to sell to an institutional investor, said Larry Lang, executive vice president and asset manager for Lamar. "We were approaching the point where we would begin looking for an exit strategy were it not for the Waccamaw situation."
_ Mark Albright can be reached at albrightsptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.
RECENT COMINGS AND GOINGS AT SEMINOLE MALL
JULY 2001: Waccamaw's HomePlace closes its doors.
JULY 2001: AMC Entertainment Inc.'s lease ends for the theaters it had operated at Seminole Mall. The company had opted not to seek a renewal. Mall managers had already arranged to have Restaurant Entertainment Group, an Atlanta-based company, take over operation of the theaters.
JANUARY 2000: Beall's announces plans to occupy the space formerly occupied by Upton's.
JULY 1999: Upton's owners announce plans to close all stores nationwide by the end of the year.
NOVEMBER 1998: Waccamaw's HomePlace stages its Seminole Mall grand opening.
AUGUST 1998: Closing of Show Offs, one of the mall's most popular attractions, offering live entertainment in a converted movie theater.
APRIL 1998: The sale of Seminole Mall to the Lamar Cos. becomes official. The mall had been owned by descendants of Jesse Johnson, the mall's first owner and considered the founder of Seminole.
APRIL 1998: Stein Mart store stages its grand opening.
APRIL 1997: McCrory closes its doors.
JULY 1996: Show Offs stages its opening performance.
MARCH 1996: Readers Outlet opens, offering discounted books.
JANUARY 1992: Plans are announced to open a Kmart store in the mall.
Number of stores Square footage
Baywalk 24 150,000
Crossroads Mall 52 284,588
Countryside Mall 170 1.2-million
Largo Mall 66 571,534
Parkside 55 742,287
Seminole Mall 52 425,000
Tyrone Square Mall 170 1.2-million