By FRANK CATALANO
Business & Work Columnist
An ongoing craft fair. If you haven’t been inside Bellingham’s enclosed mall lately, you’re probably not alone. But the mall’s new owners have plans to pull you in with different types of tenants, plus a variety of events starting with one themed around Valentine’s Day.
That February 2022 default led to months of uncertainty for tenants and shoppers. Would Bellingham still have a retail center at its 1988 vintage mall once new owners were found? And is there a role for malls — “Stranger Things” nostalgia aside — as retail activity is now vibrant downtown, long after large stores that were once downtown moved to the mall 35 years ago?
It’s clear 4th Dimension’s Felix Reznick would say yes. Reznick’s firm paid $44 million for the 536,354-square-foot mall and additional land, adding it to the company’s portfolio of at least two dozen malls that, with the exception of the property at One Bellis Fair Parkway in Bellingham, lie east of a line that runs through Texas.
While the purchase doesn’t include the Target, Kohl’s or JCPenney stores — they have different owners — it’s a lot of square footage to keep filled.
That challenge was obvious when I walked the interior of the mall early in the afternoon of Sunday, Jan. 22. I counted 41 empty storefronts scattered throughout the halls and food court. Examining the official mall map the next day, I saw 37 marked empty and 69 occupied, including locations not opening onto the mall’s interior.
But regardless of the actual number unoccupied — the online map may not have been up to date, or I may have miscounted due to Cinnabon-scent distraction — that’s still at least a third of the storefronts vacant.
Even so, it reflects an improvement. A report released by Ryan A. Martin, co-owner of Pacific Continental Realty in Bellingham, found the total vacancy rate at Bellis Fair dropped from 12.2% in the third quarter of 2022 to 11.4% in the fourth. That’s based on square footage, not visible storefronts. Martin’s math does include the separately owned Kohl’s, Target and JCPenney space in the mall total.
Reznick pegged occupancy of his 4th Dimension’s portion at “nearly 80 percent when it comes to square footage. I think with a couple of the others we’re working on, we’ll go into the low eighties,” he said.
Martin expects the mall vacancy rate to keep falling in 2023 as a result of 4th Dimension’s efforts. “I would expect them to keep attracting new tenants,” Martin said. “Anytime you have an owner who’s really hands-on, it’s going to help.”
For those wondering about the bigger regional mall picture, Bellingham’s situation differs from nearby and very freeway-visible Cascade Mall in Burlington. First, Cascade Mall is literally dead inside: according to its website, the interior mall was permanently closed in June 2020 after a temporary pandemic closure began that March.
Second, Bellis Fair seems to attract more cross-border consumers. “It’s always been Canadian dollar, Canadian shopper dependent,” Martin said.
Before the auction sale, Bellis Fair already had what might be considered nontraditional retail tenants. In addition to shops, Bellingham MakerSpace, Whatcom Wrestling Academy, Whatcom Intergenerational High School and Cascade Motorcycle Safety call the mall home. Bellingham Public Schools’ cosmetology program uses a spot, and a Bellingham Public Library branch is planned.
Owner Reznick said there’s no ideal tenant mix that translates across properties or communities. “We’re very open to trying new things,” he said “New, different uses attract a different type of shopper, which we like.”
In other malls, he said they’ve included a radio station, dance studios and a large entertainment concept that took over a 126,000-square-foot space. In Bellingham, he’d been talking with “a large clothing brand that is hopefully going to come in, and otherwise we are reaching out to some of the locals [downtown] for a second location in the mall,” he said.
One new tenant, Craftery Lane, opened in early February and announced on Facebook it’s “combining the idea of craft fairs with a boutique,” giving multiple craft vendors space in the store as well as providing a place for craft events like classes.
“I picked the mall mostly because the new management was so lovely about being excited for my idea, and helping me get into my space,” said Shanna Sampson, owner of Millie and Smums, the operator of the Craftery Lane store. “They really made it clear that their goal was more local people in the mall and getting more creative use spaces, events, things beyond just typical mall stores.”
Sampson also cited the appeal of the ample parking and Bellis Fair’s central location.
New types of stores like Craftery Lane appear to align with the broader tenant mix and events that Reznick detailed to drive all-important foot traffic, which he said also helps counter any perceived emptiness.
The first of the events starts the Thursday before Valentine’s Day. At “selfie stations,” people will be able to take photos, tag and upload them. “We’re going to have a couple of methods of judging these,” Reznick said. “And we’re going to have prizes.”
He said that will be followed by an Easter egg hunt. All told, expect “about six to seven events, at least,” he said. “It depends on how well they do.” Other events won’t necessarily be tied to holidays, like music and “a rotating art gallery.”
Ultimately, it’s a vision of reinventing the mall as the community gathering place it once was. Only not one that’s exclusively tied to shopping.
“I used to go to the mall almost every other weekend, not just to shop but to hang out with people,” Reznick said. “I think there’s still room for that.”
Commercial real estate broker Martin said having Bellis Fair become more lifestyle center than shopping center would draw his interest.
“Retail in 2023 isn’t just about going and buying a widget, unless you need it today,” he said. “You need a reason to go there that makes it fun and interesting and compelling. Otherwise, you’re just going to order it on your phone.”