From his kiosk at the Crossroads Mall, Lee Mullen has a pretty good view of the world.
For 18 years, he has been sitting smack-dab in the middle of a retail engine, etching names in steel while watching strangers seek out places to spend their money.
The parade has slowed recently as a struggling economy has hampered the retail market. But Mullen says his business is up from last year, and he has a feeling he's not the only one in the building hanging tight.
"I know a tremendous amount of people in retail. And the past year and a half has been hurting. I think the mall has fared as well as any in the area. I think it has held up pretty well," he says.
It has been more than two years since Gulfside Development Co., a Miami investment group, purchased the discount outlet mall off Roosevelt Boulevard.
With fresh paint and new floors, lighting and storefronts, the hope was to drive away the drab and bring in new life. But nobody banked on the current market.
"I think the economy switched the same time they purchased the mall," said Katie Eledge, who manages the property and does marketing for the mall.
Retailers took another big hit after Sept. 11, she said, and many retailers continue to struggle. The Clearwater Mall, plagued by years of trouble, finally closed. Six stores at Crossroads have departed since December.
But Eledge said 78 percent of the leaseable 275,515 square footage is occupied, well within the mall's average (75 to 79 percent), and she has counted 50,000 weekly shoppers during the peak season this year, and 30,000 during the summer. That roughly matches last year's numbers.
Not to mention a few new stores in the past month.
Rick Alvarez and Sandy Becker opened Pants Towne Warehouse last month, specializing in Levis and casual clothing.
Alvarez, who owns stores at two other area malls, wanted to open his warehouse as an outlet and found he could lease space for half the going rate at Crossroads. The son of a Chicago shoe salesman and a veteran of 50 years in retail, Alvarez sees tough times as opportunities.
"We expect a soft start," he said. "Business has been fair. But the best time to found a business is in the slow times. You find your niche, and you follow with great success when things pick up."
Mullen opened Lasting Impressions engraving and gifts in September 1984, the same month the mall opened, surviving three owners. He said his business was up 3 percent last year, and he anticipates small growth this year.
"We are kind of coming to the end of the recession," said Mullen, saying the empty shops are a byproduct of several bankruptcies. "That's normal at the tail end."
Silky Beauty Supply has an array of beauty supplies and more than 1,100 wigs on busts lining the perimeter of the store.
Manager David Lee said he sees an average of 200 people each day, with heavier traffic on the weekends.
"We have all the incidentals, but the hair sells the most," Lee said.
Some say it is not the economy, but the clientele.
Crossroads attracts many older shoppers, leaving Jennifer Neumann struggling as manager of Clothestime, a shop for juniors.
"Our store caters to 12 and up, to about 25," said Neumann. "The generation that comes in is generally 40 and up."
Neumann said many people still think Crossroads is an outlet mall. She hopes her store will relocate to the outdoor strip center planned to replace the Clearwater Mall, where she anticipates more business.
"You have some good stores, but I just don't think anybody hears about this mall," she said. "They come in expecting an outlet mall, and it is not. It's changed."
Others like the "value" image the mall projects. Maha Soltau opened Suzie's Ladies and Kids dress shop last month, offering dresses that range from $9.99 to $199. She said other malls with brand name shops attract people who may have no desire to spend money.
At Crossroads, she said, "They don't just come for entertainment or a walk. They come because they mean business."
_ Michael Sandler can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or sandlersptimes.com.