Regency Mall -- once retail's crown jewel of south Augusta -- isn't dead yet, say mall managers, despite several vacancies and the recent bankruptcy protection filing of one of its two anchor stores.
Community leaders and some retailers say the mall has been replaced by the Wal-Mart super center as south Augusta's central retail venue.
"Regency Mall used to be a place where you could take your family to shop and where you could go see your mamma, uncles and cousins," said Tony Rodgers, a local business owner in south Augusta. "Around here, the only place for us to go to now is Wal-Mart."
At nearly 190,000 square feet, the new Wal-Mart has 36 merchandise departments and employs 400 associates. With about 800,000 square feet, Regency Mall has 139 stores, but only half of them are occupied, said Regency's new owner and manager Paul Woo.
Mr. Woo plans to give the 19year-old fixture a face lift, a new name and a fresh start. He wouldn't release all the details of Regency Mall's revitalization plan, not even the name, but Mr. Woo did say he believes Regency Mall and Augusta Mall can coexist in the area without directly competing with each other.
And despite an uncertain future for one of its two anchor stores - Montgomery Ward & Co. - Mr. Woo, who bought the shopping center Jan. 30 for less than its $12.5 million asking price, hopes to shape it into a niche complex to attract tourists.
"There are major changes happening to the mall. It will be completely refurbished. We're changing the signs and we're changing the entrances or may be adding another entrance," said Melinda Phillips, a consultant for Regency Mall Limited Liability Co., the new owner. "We feel the Augusta market needs totally new stores, so we've been talking to retail outlets that are currently not in the Augusta market. We want to bring fresh, new merchants to the city."
Ms. Phillips declined to name the outlets, saying the mall wants more local business owners and national retailers that would appeal to travelers.
"We're talking to national retailers who are excited about our market," she said. "We want to make Augusta an interesting place for folks traveling up and down the East Coast. We want to capitalize on Riverwalk, Fort Discovery, the Golf Hall of Fame and the Masters."
Regency will not attempt to compete with Augusta Mall, a regional retail facility that houses Rich's, Macy's and other national stores, said Mr. Woo. Instead, new managers want Regency Mall's new stores to sell name-brand clothing and merchandise at discount prices.
"We are not trying to compete with established, traditional fullpriced department stores," Mr. Woo said.
"Our market research shows a lot of shoppers travel to places like Savannah and Hilton Head to shop," he said. "We want to provide a local shopping experience for them so they can shop in their own backyard. We want to draw people from a 100-mile radius to Augusta."
Montgomery Ward recently filed for protection from its creditors under Chapter 11 of federal bankruptcy law. A spokeswoman with the chain would not speculate on the local store's future.
"Chapter 11 gives Montgomery Ward the opportunity to restructure and reorganize. During this time, it will be business as usual in our stores as we continue to implement the core strategy that we previously announced," said Kathleen O'Neal of Montgomery Ward's headquarters in Chicago. "At the moment, we have made no decision on additional store closings or layoffs."
Representatives of Montgomery Ward have said they will close stores but haven't announced which ones. Locally, Montgomery Ward employs about 100 associates, said Ms. O'Neal. She would not reveal local sales figures.
J.B. White & Co., Regency's other anchor, is building another store at Augusta Mall that's expected to open next spring. J.B. White has no plans to close its Regency location when the new store is built, said company spokesman Nick Amato, based at the White's in National Hills shopping center.
Augusta Mall has about 1.04 million square feet of retail space for lease, according to the 1995 Shopping Center Directory published by the National Research Bureau. That doesn't include 160,000 square feet planned for the J.B. White store.
Retail space at Augusta Mall is 99 percent leased. Regency is 55 percent occupied, managers said recently, although in March the mall had nearly 500,000 square feet - more than half of its space - available for lease.
Augusta Mall has more foot traffic than Regency, said James Stemmons, a local entrepreneur who is about to open a fashion store in Augusta Mall.
"More people come through there," he said of Augusta Mall. "My business partner and I thought it presented a better opportunity for us."
But Pat and Jack McKinney, who operate a business at Augusta Mall, decided three months ago to open a store at Regency. They own McKinney's Gallery, which specializes in limited edition art and custom framing.
"The building space at Regency Mall was cheap. Mall managers over there are easy to work with. The mall over there is cleaner. There were several different reasons why they opened up a place over there," said Sue Motes, an employee at the family business. "It was a real good deal all the way around."
Regency Mall is leasing space for $3.50 per square foot, which is comparable to warehouse leasing prices. Augusta Mall General Manager Linda Hardin did not return three phone calls over two weeks to obtain information about the price of leased space at the mall.
Regency's economic impact on south Augusta is significant, said Augusta Commissioner Moses Todd.
"Anytime you have a mall to virtually close, it's bound to have some impact," Mr. Todd said. About 70 percent of the population of Augusta-Richmond County - roughly 103,000 of a total 191,000 residents - live in the area, he noted.
Regency's renovation, coupled with widening of Windsor Spring and Tobacco roads in the area, should encourage commercial growth, Mr. Todd predicted.
"It's up to those of us who live in the area to patronize the mall and other businesses on our side of town so that there is growth," he said.