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Shooting makes Monroeville Mall's attempts to rehab image more difficult

| Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015
Police respond to a shooting in Monroeville Mall on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Police respond to a shooting in Monroeville Mall on Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015.

The weekend shooting at Monroeville Mall compounded the challenges for a retail shopping center trying to restore its reputation from a December brawl and reassure shoppers and store owners concerned about the violence.

The competition for mall tenants is fierce in an oversaturated market like Western Pennsylvania, and shootings and fights can persuade nervous retailers and shoppers to go elsewhere, said Audrey Guskey, associate professor of marketing at Duquesne University.

“It's a big deal for Monroeville Mall,” Guskey said. “I would be very worried if I were a business owner there. It's a tough sell.”

This week, there were about a dozen empty storefronts at the mall, down from 25 in February 2009 during the depths of the recession, but double the number before a brawl involving hundreds of teenagers occurred in December.

Those vacancies were not necessarily the result of fearful store owners leaving. They involved a mix of lease expirations, temporary holiday businesses and bankruptcies, said Stacey Keating, a Monroeville Mall spokeswoman.

Children's clothing retailer Gymboree left the mall in January after its lease expired but declined to comment on its reasons for not renewing.

Malls suffer from many pressures, including changing demographics, the demise of anchor tenants and growing competition from online retailers. Mall vacancy rates have risen in the past decade, according to REIS Inc., a Texas-based company that tracks commercial real estate. The vacancy rate for regional malls at the end of 2014 was 8 percent, compared with 5.3 percent in 2004.

The threat of violence can be the final straw for struggling retail centers, Guskey said.

“When you have a crisis like this, it unfortunately adds another layer of problems and another excuse for retailers who were thinking about opening there not to open or those that were there not to extend their lease,” she said.

Shoppers at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, which has contended with a high vacancy rate ranging from 35 to 40 percent, have complained of feeling unsafe in dimly lit parking lots and with large groups of rowdy teenagers hanging outside.

A violent murder near Northridge Mall in Milwaukee in 1992 contributed to its already hurting business and led to its eventual closure in 2003, said Jeff Fleming, a spokesperson for the Department of City Development for Milwaukee.

“There was a lot of mythology surrounding the violence and supposed violence at Northridge Mall,” he said. “I think that it would be naïve to suggest that people didn't perceive there was a problem with violence there.”

Still, even a shooting rarely leads to an exodus of tenants, said David Levenberg, president of Center Security Services, a mall security consultant in Boca Raton, Fla.

“Shootings like (the one in Monroeville) are so infrequent that I would think they would have to be coupled with other regular issues,” he said.

Some leases include clauses that allow retailers to get out of their commitment if there are security issues, Levenberg said. But typically, tenants have to give mall owners time to respond to the problems.

Store owners interviewed this week and Keating, the mall spokeswoman, declined to discuss lease conditions.

When violent incidents occur, malls can work with law enforcement to make shoppers and tenants feel more at ease. Two years ago, Indianapolis police stepped up security at two shopping centers after a shooting and a separate fight involving three 17-year-olds confronting off-duty police officers providing security.

To improve security, Monroeville Mall is reopening a police substation that had been shuttered the past two years. The mall is implementing a policy that bans teenagers who are not accompanied by an adult on weekends, though that policy will not apply to the movie theater or department stores, including Macy's, where the shooting occurred.

Macy's spokeswoman Elina Kazan said the store is taking its own steps to enhance security but did not offer specifics.

Retailers interviewed at Monroeville Mall complimented the steps that Monroeville Mall had taken and said they had no intention of moving.

“I don't even know that it has been a question right now,” said Laurie Miller, an assistant store manager at Gift-ology.

Sunny Akram has owned Gold Center Jewelry Inc. at Monroeville Mall for 15 years and watched the shooting unfold less than 50 feet from his kiosk. Yet, he said he does not feel threatened.

“The business is not affected,” he said. “This can happen anywhere.”

Katelyn Ferral contributed. Chris Fleisher is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or cfleisher@tribweb.com.

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