A new Cortana Mall on the inside may not look anything like the old Cortana Mall.
At least that’s the plan for Nevada-based Moonbeam Equities, the company that purchased the struggling mall three years ago.
With the exodus of national retail chains and department stores, Shawl Pryor Sr., senior vice president of Moonbeam, says the company is looking for nontraditional mall tenants, like Virginia College, to move into the once-mighty shopping center.
Schools, business offices and medical offices are at the top of Moonbeam’s list of possible partners that might take a chance on moving into Cortana.
“We think that by bringing in one office, it will also help to not just reinvigorate the mall, but also the surrounding neighborhood,” Pryor says. “We hope to be the catalytic project that could rebirth that Airline (Highway) area.”
Kyle Zeringue, senior vice president of business development for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, says BRAC last spoke with Moonbeam executives about 18 months ago and recommended the Nevada company bring in medical specialists or rebrand Cortana Mall as an outlet mall.
That’s not to say that Moonbeam is not still pitching national retail chains on coming to Cortana—the company vigorously continues doing so—but the massive amount of space available in the vacant department store spaces is a better fit for schools and offices, Pryor says.
“Cortana will never be what it used to be and there are a number of different reasons,” Pryor says. “Many of the malls today are repurposing themselves and bringing in nonretail users, such as colleges and offices and call centers.”
Retailers are becoming more specialized, and department stores are shrinking, Pryor says. So to retain existing retailers in struggling shopping centers, property management companies are thinking outside the box for ways to attract foot traffic.
It’s a strategy that has worked for Pryor and other companies. He pointed to the Spectrum Plaza in Spring, Texas, and Greeley Mall in Greeley, Colorado, as two locations to which Moonbeam has recruited nontraditional tenants to help turn those areas around.
In Texas, Moonbeam added a medical tenant and grocery store to an outdoor strip mall; occupancy now is nearing 100%, Pryor says. In Colorado, the company brought in At Home, a home furnishings store that is not normally in a mall setting, as one of the new anchor tenants in an old department store space, Pryor says. Moonbeam also recruited Spirit Halloween—a holiday wholesale company that opens for several months a year—into another open anchor tenant space.
The process will not be quick, though, and Pryor is hesitant to give a timeline for the entire repurposing project at Cortana. The company has commitments from five retail chains—three national names and two regional players—to move into the mall if Moonbeam Equities can sign that one large office tenant. One national chain wants 20,000 square feet, while another wants 10,000 square feet.
“There’s a lot more interest in the property in the last year than we’ve seen in the first two years,” Pryor says.
During the course of its ownership, Moonbeam has had its challenges. In January, Macy’s announced it was shuttering its Cortana location as part of a national closure of 40 stores.
Pryor says that loss was particularly damaging because Macy’s brought in different types of shoppers than the other anchor department stores—patrons that will be difficult to replace.
Stabilization of existing tenants is also a key strategy for Moonbeam in the three years since it purchased Cortana Mall for $6 million. One major obstacle is the blighted areas surrounding the mall that may discourage some would-be patrons from visiting the mall and existing tenants from staying.
To fill some of the vacancies, Moonbeam has created an incubator-like environment, allowing entrepreneurs—like the owners of the Café at Cortana—to move into available spaces at below market rates and grow.
Metro Councilwoman Donna Collins-Lewis, who represents that area, says she supports Moonbeam’s plan to bring in tenants akin to medical offices, noting that residents around the mall don’t want to see it die.
“I think it’s a great move,” Collins-Lewis says of Moonbeam’s plans.