Growing up in Chattanooga, Kenneth Ware has been shopping at Northgate Mall all his life and recalls when the Hixson shopping center was the biggest retail draw north of the river, attracting thousands of shoppers on a typical day.
But as the 53-year-old Chattanoogan strolled around Northgate on Monday, he saw as many vacant storefronts as there were shoppers inside the 820,000-square-foot mall.
"It's really heartbreaking to see what was once a very vibrant place now having so many businesses and storefronts closed," Ware said in an interview at the mall Monday. "I know there are a lot of restaurants and other businesses opening around the mall, but I think the decline of Northgate hurts the whole community."
On Sunday, the second biggest tenant at Northgate shut down its store in the mall after operating there for the past decade, leaving the Hixson mall more than a third vacant.
The off-price retail chain Burlington, formerly Burlington Coat Factory, closed its 63,000-square-foot store at Northgate and will open a smaller replacement store in Hixson on Oct. 27 in the former Bed, Bath & Beyond that shut down earlier this year in the Town Center North about a mile down the road on Highway 153.
The closing leaves Northgate with only Belk as a major anchor tenant as the mall enters the traditionally busy holiday shopping season. The 173,000-square-foot J.C. Penney store at Northgate closed in 2014, and the 192,500-square-foot Sears shut down its Northgate store in 2019.
In addition to the anchors, more than a dozen other former stores or restaurant sites in the mall are now empty, and the shopping center has reduced its hours from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., nearly 40% fewer hours than at its peak.
Mary Scoggins used to work at the Penney's store at Northgate and remembers the retail vibrancy of Northgate through most of its 51-year history.
"It used to be that every storefront here was open and there were people shopping all day long," Scoggins said Monday while eating her lunch at the Chick-fil-A inside Northgate. "I'm sad to see how business has declined."
Northgate still has more than two dozen retail shops within the mall and even more restaurants, shops, a movie theater and offices around the mall building. New tenants such as Miller's Ale House, McAlister's Deli and Chattanooga Yarn Co. have opened in and around the Northgate Mall in the past year and a half, and other businesses are looking at locating in the mall, operators said.
Colony 13, owned by Rodney and Susan Bass, has been operating in Northgate Mall since 1978, almost as long as the mall has existed.
"Any time you lose another retailer at the mall, it's not good, and your foot traffic is going to fall off, which certainly has happened here," Rodney Bass said in a telephone interview. "But I think the mall managers are working to find other uses at Northgate, and everything seems to be on the table. With our own store, we've been here so long we have really loyal customers, and we're still doing very well."
CBL Properties Inc., the Chattanooga-based real estate investment trust that owns and operates Northgate, is working on plans to help revitalize the mall and re-imagine much of its nearly half million square feet of vacant space, company spokesperson Stacey Keating said.
"We are currently evaluating several possible redevelopment scenarios, but it's too early in the process to make any announcements," Keating said in a statement Monday. "Northgate Mall is a well-located asset in a growing submarket, and we're excited about the prospects for its future evolution."
More than three years ago, the former Sears store was pitched to Hamilton County public schools as a possible site to relocate the Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts. The county ultimately decided to move CSLA from East Brainerd Road to the former Lakeside Elementary School on Jersey Pike instead.
But the school conversion highlights how CBL and other owners of some of the anchor properties are thinking beyond conventional storefronts to revitalize the mall.
Hamilton Place remains Chattanooga's biggest and most vibrant shopping mall. At that location, CBL has added a hotel, workout gyms and other non-retail commercial businesses to the two-level mall.
The empty anchor stores at Northgate are already getting some temporary use during the holidays.
Spirit Halloween has rented much of the vacant former Sears store on the west end of Northgate to help sell costumes and Halloween decorations leading up to the Oct. 31 holiday. In the vacant former J.C. Penney location, Duck Duck Goose is registering vendors for an upcoming consignment sale scheduled to run Oct. 19-21 and Oct. 23. In November, Go! Calendars Games will open in the center court area of Northgate, Keating said.
Future of malls
Shopping malls like Northgate have been hurt by the rise in online shopping, a decline in visitors to department stores and, more recently, the pandemic, which kept consumers home.
In the 1980s, there were about 2,500 malls nationwide, according to Core Research, which tracks consumer and retail trends. Today about 700 malls are still operating and more are expected to close.
But in a new report on the State of the American Mall, Core Research said many malls have returned to pre-pandemic normalcy as in-person shopping has bounced back. Core Research said more stores opened in 2022 than closed — the first time that has happened since 2016 — and malls' sales grew more than 11% in 2022 to nearly $819 billion.