Gisela George was enjoying a cup of ice cream as she strolled alone in Gainesville’s Lakeshore Mall.
You could count on one hand, maybe two, the number of shoppers roaming inside the cavernous shopping center during a recent visit. Most stores had closed since the COVID-19 pandemic, signs posted to front doors explaining the darkness inside.
The 50-year-old, 500,000-square-foot Lakeshore Mall at 150 Pearl Nix Parkway has struggled over the years, including Sears closing in 2019 and J.C. Penney announcing June 5 that its store would close as part of bankruptcy proceedings.
Plus, the pandemic has done Lakeshore no favors.
“We’re struggling, yes, absolutely," said Mahmoud Al-Hadidi of mall owner True Buyer Stockbridge Enterprises of Orchard Lake, Mich., near Detroit. “We have a very good outlook for the future, but at this time, we’re going through very rough times.”
A few anchors, such as Belk, and Books-A-Million, were open, but with access limited to outside doors. There were several people entering and exiting those stores.
“From inside the nice, cool mall, you cannot walk into Belk,” said George, who lives in Gainesville. “I won’t do it. I will wait until things are normal. I don’t need anything that bad that I go back into a hot car and drive (to the entrance).”
Retail nationwide has struggled mightily since the pandemic, but malls, which have been waning in popularity for years, may be even taking a bigger hit.
At least 400 shopping malls across the country have closed over several decades. Credit Suisse, an investment banking company, predicted in 2017 — long before the current global pandemic — that as many as 275 shopping malls will close by 2022, a possible ripple effect after 8,600 stores shuttered across the country last year, Business Insider reported.
In 2010, Texas-based Coyote Management, L.P. and New York-based Garrison Investment Group acquired the property for an undisclosed sum of money in a bankruptcy sale.
Then, in 2017, True Buyer bought the property in an auction for $6.8 million. At the time, a document attached to the digital sale said that the mall “suffered from high vacancy.”
And then came the Sears closing.
“We have good prospects for the Sears space … as a major grocery (store) or wholesale distributor,” Al-Hadidi said. “But unfortunately, that (situation) was set back with the (pandemic).”
Otherwise, Belk and Dick’s Sporting Goods are “doing very well,” he said.
Belk officials couldn’t be reached for comment.
Dick’s Sporting Goods responded with a press statement for the chain that says, “Although the business environment of 2020 remains uncertain, Dick’s Sporting Goods is in a position of strength. We believe coming out of the current crisis, health and fitness will become even more important to the consumer.”
A Firestone Complete Auto Care is planned on what is now a parking lot on the Sears side of the mall, facing Dawsonville Highway. The business got Gainesville City Council’s approval in March.
“We’re working with them,” Al-Hadidi said. “That is a real possibility.”
Tony Lee, partner at Cell Phone Repair inside Lakeshore, said his business closed in April and reopened in May.
“It was slow for about two weeks, and now it’s picking up,” he said. “People are coming out of … their homes.”
Lakeshore Mall, “in its heyday, was the center of the universe for retail in all of Northeast Georgia,” said Frank Norton Jr., CEO and chairman of The Norton Agency in Gainesville.
Then, other stores, such as Walmart, started moving in, eroding Lakeshore business.
“It diluted to the point that the major stores were having trouble. It’s like a snowball running downhill,” Norton said.
Online commerce — which has taken off during the pandemic — has only compounded troubles.
Still, the mall “is sitting on 50 acres of the most prime real estate in all of Northeast Georgia,” Norton said. “It’s graded flat, it’s accessible and can have other types of uses. … With creative imagination, people are repurposing large retail blocks into housing, office space and other kinds of big-user type of operations.”
Tim Evans, vice president of economic development at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, also was optimistic, even with J.C. Penney’s downfall.
“The end of Penney’s is not necessarily the end of Lakeshore Mall, but certainly not the end of the usefulness of that location,” he said. “It gives the opportunity for new life for something else. That’s a fantastic location … and I don’t have any doubt that there’ll be some new opportunity down the road.”
For her part, George likes Lakeshore as it is.
“I think it’s a nice mall — I really think so,” she said. “I don’t like huge malls, where you have to walk forever to find something.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.