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Mall doctor takes on Lakeshores renewal
New manager hopes to revitalize aging plaza with new retailers, local focus
Lakeshore Mall General Manager Debbie Overholt looks over old plans of the mall Thursday inside her office. The mall is currently undergoing renovations. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Debbie Overholt calls herself "the mall doctor."

In the past 15 years, she's taken on half a dozen retail projects, revamping sprawling shopping centers and managing a mall with 13 million visitors a year.

On Dec. 8 she set up shop at the offices of Gainesville's Lakeshore Mall and took on revitalizing a space that she said appears to have a total "disconnect from the community."

"I would like (Lakeshore Mall) to be ingrained in the community, a place back to the basics," said the new general manager. "When I first started in the shopping center business we had a very close relationship with our community. ... It was a dialogue and a relationship. Over time, it's turned into less and less of that."

The mall on Pearl Nix Parkway came under new ownership in September when Coyote Management, L.P. purchased the 500,000-square-foot facility from First Republic Group Realty, LLC. First Republic had purchased the mall in 2007 but in 2009 filed a petition for relief with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, posting more than $18 million in business debts, according to court documents.

The mall was last renovated in 2006. But Overholt said that the previous owners relied on income from the main anchor stores to survive and let the property fall into disarray.

Striping in the parking lot faded. Landscaping overgrew. The roof wore down.

Since Coyote took over just four months ago, they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to improve the facility. This month they'll start a million-dollar repair job on the roof and soon they'll be replacing the signs at the mall's entrance.

But years of disrepair affect more than just the appearance of a mall, Overholt said. It crumbles the public opinion and ultimately, the leasability of a space.

"(National retailers) are not going to come in unless there is a whole selection of other tenants that they feel is necessary for their success," she said. "And if they look at a property and don't see a commitment from an owner to at least keep the physical plant (updated), it's an erosion over time. It's a lot more difficult to come in and change perception with these retailers."

Radio Shack is one of the mall's oldest tenants, having opened in 1974, just five years after the mall was built in 1969. Jeff Parker, manager there since 2003, said he's seen some highs, like the 2006 renovations, but also some low points.

"I've just seen a lot of tenants come and go," he said. "It seems like we don't have as many of the brand names stores as we did at one time."

Overholt is committed to bringing new stores in and changing perception about Lakeshore Mall. The mall is currently at about 90 percent occupancy, but Overholt isn't happy with the tenant mix.

After the facility is up to physical standards, she'll start aggressively approaching national retailers and restaurants.

She hopes to sell the space on the strength of its anchor stores - Belk, JCPenny, Sears and Books-A-Million - and the financial commitment the new owners have made, which she said shows their desire to turn the mall into a long-term success, not a short-term cash cow.

National retailers talk, Overholt said, and the hardest part is getting the first one to sign a lease.

"They'll ask each other ‘Are you going there? Are you going there? Are you going there?' And then once you get one or two, they all will start signing deals," she said.

But the goal isn't to try to compete with the monster Mall of Georgia down the highway in Buford, Overholt said. She wants to retain a local feel to Lakeshore, mixing national retailers and locally owned businesses. That process starts with reconnecting with the community, she said, and finding out what businesses residents want to see.

"I'm looking for as much information as I can get. Where I get my hair, where I go to eat. I'm asking everyone, ‘What are your feelings? What would you like to see here?'" she said. "... We don't need some big fancy research company."

While eating lunch Friday in the food court, friends Lynn Sosebee, 21, and Wendy Bell, 22, both of Gainesville, said they certainly have seen things change for the better at the mall. But there still is a lot of room for improvement, especially in the mix of stores, they said.

"I'd like it just if there were more clothing stores," Sosebee said. "I'm not a size zero so I have a hard time shopping here sometimes."

Overholt said it takes about three to five months to work through the leasing process with a new tenant, so she hopes to have new shops opening within the year.

"We can fine-tune ourselves to the community," she said. "We can meet the community needs."