Pemberton mall’s future to be decided in 2008|[01/03/07]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 3, 2008

Twenty-two years after its debut and about five years into a slew of retail closings, the owners of the Pemberton Square mall acknowledged that decisions made this year will determine the shopping center’s future.

And as 2007 came to a close, so did several other mall businesses. Dirt Cheap, a discount salvage store, which occupied one of the mall’s four anchor spots, closed Saturday. The Cookie Store, which served customers over the counter, has been boarded up. The King of Hearts tuxedo store has relocated to a spot on South Frontage Road according to a sign in its window. Other empty storefronts are covered with curtains, advertisements or filled with holiday-themed displays.

“The vitality and the growth of the center is definitely a focus to us,” said Katie Reinsmidt, a spokesman for the mall’s parent company, CBL & Associates Inc. of Chattanooga, Tenn. “There’s definitely a flux going on at Pemberton. Different tenants leave for different reasons, but we’re constantly talking to many retailers – I don’t have anything signed at this point, but we’re in confident discussions, ” Reinsmidt said. She declined to name any specific retailers or restaurants, but did said they were well-recognized brands.

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The 351,920 square foot mall opened in March 1985 and was last renovated in 1996. The building is on a 47-acre site created after large-scale earth moving. It centers a larger shopping area, which includes two strip malls several freestanding retail shops and restaurants. Pemberton at Halls Ferry remains Vicksburg’s busiest intersection.

Yet on Wednesday, days after the busy Christmas rush, with many of the area’s students still out of school, crowds were slim in the mall, even at midafternoon. Around 2:30, the mall’s arcade stood empty, filled only with the repeating bleeps and dings of the video games that line the walls. A few patrons strolled down the mall, while others sat, apparently waiting for friends or family to exit stores. Still others lined up in front of Wingo’s, one of the mall’s two eateries. The city’s only movie theater, which was housed in the mall, closed last December, and bringing movies back was tops on the minds of shoppers.

“They need to bring the theater back,” said Marquita Spikes. Her friend, Charlina Barnes of Jackson, agreed. Still, the two said the remaining stores in the mall make a visit worthwhile. “I like the ladies’ stores,” said Spikes.

“I come in for (athletic apparel store) Jordan,” said Mike Eavis. “But if they could open some of the stores back up,” that would be better, said Eavis describing the mall as “not terrible.” For now, the closest place to see a movie is Clinton, about 30 miles east on Interstate 20.

Pemberton Square’s Cinema 4 closed in December 2006 about two weeks after a stabbing and arrest on or near the premises. The cinema’s closing left Vicksburg as a town without a theater for the first time in about 100 years.

In an unrelated incident, five stores closed in August 2006 after a separate fight between patrons and the stores’ owners. The stores’ leases were canceled a week later. About a dozen businesses have left the mall in the last two years.

Before the theater’s closing, mall manager Renee Williams said that plans were in the works to upgrade the theater’s seats and sound system, but those plans were shelved last summer, a few months before the business closed. Williams did not return calls Wednesday regarding the latest closings.

Breathing vitality back into the mall has been an ongoing topic for Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens.

Last year, Leyens suggested demolishing most of the mall but leaving the four anchor stores and the theater intact, creating space for five other stand-alone businesses in the process. Wednesday, Leyens said he plans to write a letter to the owners asking them to create a concrete plan to address the future of the mall. Reinsmidt said that process is already under way.

“We would like to see what the community would most like to see,” she said. “We want to see what’s going to meet the needs of the market which hopefully will be what the community is asking for and demanding.”

As for the theater, “We know that is something that’s in demand for the area,” she said. “Every location has unique challenges and part of our job is to find the strengths of our centers.”

Meanwhile, talk of reopening the mall’s theater or one elsewhere continues. Possible locations include the former Sack and Save building on South Frontage Road and the 12-year-old Vicksburg Factory Outlets.

CBL & Associates owns, holds interests in or manages 136 retail properties across the United States. In Vicksburg, the company also owns nearby Pemberton Plaza and four other properties in Mississippi.