Under new ownership, Southgate Mall strives to become community center

Movie goers enter the AMC dine-in theater at Southgate Mall on a weekday afternoon in Missoula. The mall’s new owner, Washington Prime, is  looking to further transform the mall into a community center built around food, retail and entertainment. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

If Tim Winger had a crystal ball when it comes to the future of Southgate Mall, he sees a handful of new national players, local businesses and a larger focus on making the property a community center.

The AMC dine-in theater will get its liquor license, he believes, and new development could find its way to the mall’s surrounding properties.

“The changes in the industry are really less emphasized on a collection of retail stores,” Winger, the mall’s manager, said this week. “We’re adding entertainment, new food and services. We’ve kind of done that for a long time. That’s why we’re a good fit for the company that bought us.”

Nearly a year ago, the Washington Prime Group based in Columbus, Ohio, purchased the mall for roughly $58 million from Southgate Mall Associates in Missoula.

Since that time, Winger said, the company has continued to invest in the property and implement many of the strategies the former owners had been working on before the sale. That included transforming the property into a neighborhood hub and giving the mall an outward focus.

The AMC dine-in theater opened last February after the sale, followed by Lucky’s Market in May. In November, the Dram Shop announced plans to open next to the mall in what will be its second Missoula location.

Winger said Washington Prime plans to continue the mall’s transformation.

“It may change a little with the players and design, but they’re definitely continuing it,” he said. “They want to spur development in the community around this area in Midtown. With the deals that we’re looking at and some of the things they want us to continue to do, I think they’re on the right track.”

The property was constructed in 1978 and renovated in the late 1990s. Several years ago, the former owners began the costly process of redeveloping the property into a mix of uses.

That vision included more connectivity across mall property, and new surrounding development to support a larger Midtown population. It also came with plans to transform the mall into a neighborhood hub and center of activity.

It’s there where Winger sees Washington Prime’s greatest potential. The new owners have brought a renewed focus to the concept of building a community center.

“We want to become the community center, and Washington Prime wants us to become the community center,” Winger said. “They want to go further and they bring that national pull to work different angles. They have a robust marketing department, leading us down the path of more events and events with value.”

Winger said the mall currently attracts 6 million visitors a year. It’s been successful where other malls across the country have failed. By pursuing the concept of a community center, visitation is expected to rise, netting new offerings and bolstering local businesses.

“The community center concept was absolutely implemented when we added Lucky’s and the 47,000-square-foot restaurant with nine big (movie) screens in it,” he said. “Both stores are reporting unbelievable support by the community and are doing really well.”

Winger said AMC is still planning to secure its liquor license – a concept that was built into the theater when it opened last year. The liquor license is still being worked on, he said.

“We hear their legal department is working on it and trying to make it happen in 2019,” Winger said. “They’re figuring it out. I think they’re still interested in trying to make that happen.”

In the coming months, Winger said it’s likely the mall will announce several new stores, including a handful of national chains and several new local businesses “that will blossom into great tenants and an attraction for the mall.”

New food and services could also be in the making, he said.

“They (Washington Prime) are the perfect company to take it to the next level,” Winger said. “I’ve been in the industry for 30 years, and I think they’re doing some groundbreaking things on the marketing and events side, and I like the way they’re running with that. They’re poised to do well in this transitional stage of malls.”