JB Schutte has a new title, effective last Friday: general manager of Vancouver Mall.
Until Friday, Schutte had been manager of Westfield Vancouver mall, the same mall but with the word Vancouver second to “Westfield” at the insistence of its Australian corporate owners. The decision by the mall’s new owner, Centennial Real Estate Company of Dallas, to restore the mall’s historic name appears to have been pitch-perfect. Many dozens of commenters on The Columbian’s Facebook page and website expressed joy that the mall would again be known by its original name, without a corporate branding attached.
“The community spoke very loud and clear that they like the name Vancouver Mall,” Schutte told The Columbian on Monday. “The name goes back 40 years. Westfield came in with their own style of branding and were very adamant that it had to be called ‘Westfield Vancouver.’ For the local community, that just didn’t hold water.”
Schutte and his staff — a crew of 10 that manage and promote the mall — are adjusting to new email accounts and computer systems, and a different company name on their paychecks. The timing of the transition, coming in the middle of the year’s busiest shopping season, is less than ideal. But Schutte’s enthusiasm is unchecked. Centennial’s Chief Executive Officer Steve Levin has already paid nine visits to Vancouver and has convinced Schutte that the change in ownership will be a good one for the mall and the Vancouver community.
“He’s come to understand the property and he wants to give it back to the community, ” Schutte said. While the company’s future philanthropic presence is not yet known, Schutte said Westfield had scaled back the mall’s philanthropy during his tenure.
Vancouver Mall was one of five Westfield malls in four states purchased by Centennial in a deal valued at $1.1 billion that took effect on Friday. Centennial, a company founded in 1997 that specializes in investment and management of retail properties, secured financial backing from Montgomery Street Partners, an affiliate of Blum Capital Partners of San Francisco, and USAA Real Estate Company of San Antonio, Texas. The five malls it purchased contain more than six million feet of retail space and are 97 percent occupied.
Levin was not available Monday for comment. Schutte said Vancouver Mall, with 125 stores and about 850,000 square feet, has 90 percent occupancy. That will climb to 95 percent with the opening of two outlets in the former Nordstrom space — a Golds Gym, set to open in late February or early March, and an H &M clothing store, which will is set to open in October, Schutte said.
It’s hard to say at this early moment under new ownership what’s next for the mall. Schutte said he and Levin agree that Vancouver is “under-restauranted” and they would like to see more food offerings at the mall. He also would like to bring a furniture store into the mall. While Vancouver’s retail sector suffers in general from the seepage of shoppers to sales-tax-free Oregon outlets for high-ticket items, Schutte sees the potential for more furniture sales, since Washington’s sales tax is collected on any goods that are delivered to a Washington address, even if the goods are purchased in Oregon.
The increasingly heavy traffic on the bridges crossing the Columbia creates other retail opportunities for smaller-ticket items, Schutte said. He noted that the Sports Authority opened in Hazel Dell and closed in Portland’s Jantzen Beach mall. For sporting good items that the company sells, “people are not going to drive through nonsense traffic,” he said.
One other theme besides the name change emerged strongly in online reaction to the new mall ownership — a desire for more connections between the mall’s first and second floors. A renovation in 2011 relocated an escalator from the mall’s center to the end, improving sight lines but creating a frustrating lack of ways to go up and down. A small elevator at the heart of the mall can only hold six to seven people comfortably and is a constant maintenance challenge, Schutte said. Some shoppers have learned to duck into Sears or other stores to move from one floor to another.
The mall manager is obviously aware of the complaint but said it’s too early to know what, if anything, the mall’s new owners want to do about it. “Centennial’s only had the property for three days,” he said. But he’s already recommended that the owners look for a way for shoppers to move up and down within the mall.
Schutte, who previously worked as a Westfield mall general manager in California, said the Australian real estate company is steadily shifting its focus to high-end flagship malls.
“Some community malls like ours don’t fit that business plan,” he said. That doesn’t mean that the malls weren’t turning a profit for corporate owners: the Vancouver mall saw its revenue grow by $15 per square foot in the past two years. “When you’re pushing one million square feet, that’s a lot of revenue coming in,” he said.
In fact, he believes declarations about the decline of suburban malls in the face of lower-cost retail and online competition has been greatly exaggerated. People are social and they want a place to congregate, he says, noting the many senior citizens and others who regularly visit for “mall walks” away from the rain and cold. “If malls were dying, you would see vending machines everywhere.”