Missoula’s Southgate Mall courts local businesses as tenants

Southgate Mall’s new ownership is pushing to increase foot traffic and become a local hub for events, while inviting a wide range of local and national businesses to set up shop.

Since its sale last year to Washington Prime Group for $58 million, the midtown Missoula mall has embraced more affordable options to encourage local businesses to relocate there.

One of the first new additions will be Glo Domes, a Missoula-based geodesic dome retailer.

“I think it’s no secret that the retail industry has been going through changes for quite some time. There are a lot of retailers that have been tested and a lot of retail failures going on nationally at this time,” Southgate Mall general manager Tim Winger said.

The new ownership and mall staff are focusing on three key areas, Winger said, which include providing organizations with space for events, offering more sponsorship opportunities and encouraging local businesses to open in the mall by offering affordable spaces.

“We have over 6 million visits per year at our property, and if we have events it’s a really great opportunity for other businesses, that aren’t just small businesses, to benefit and increase the awareness of their company through sponsoring our events. We have different tiers of sponsorships as well,” Winger said.

The mall already has a number of local businesses, like Skin Chic and The Trail Head, but Winger said there are many options for businesses to have a presence. They don’t have to be retail, he said, and can provide services or highlight a product.

Businesses can sign a long-term lease and redevelop a space or a short-term agreement that is below market rate. Start-ups can also try “pop-ups” that offer products or services seasonally or for a few days.

Winger said Lithia Motors has been successful in selling vehicles by parking one inside the mall. AT&T has offered services four months at a time in retail spaces as a marketing strategy, and as a way to gauge if the mall is a viable location for a permanent store.

“I think the customers are telling us to do that by how they shop, what they shop for, what they want to do, what they want to spend their money doing. It’s not going out for the day for shopping. They want to experience things, they want to have fun and entertainment,” Winger said.

Right now, there are about 10 vacant spaces in the mall, and two local businesses have reached out about using space since a recent meeting where Winger announced plans to diversify.

“We have a couple other pretty exciting local proprietors that we’re really close to sealing up some deals (with), and at some point, hopefully in the next couple of months, we’ll be able to announce a few more of those,” he said.

Chirag Patel, co-founder of a Missoula-based geodesic dome company called Glo Domes, is planning to lease space in the mall.

A seven-meter dome made of galvanized steel will be set up in the middle of the mall, where shoppers can view a furnished dome that can be used on someone’s property as an Airbnb or as storage.

Domes come in a variety of setups and sizes, from 7 meters to 15 meters.

“Typically, the stigma of the mall has changed over the past 20 years, and before it was highly dependent on your bigger department stores acting as the anchors and bringing everybody together to one shopping destination. That’s kind of changed to more of an experience center now. Individuals are going there to get more done than shopping” Patel said. “We believe our business fits into that model.”

The mall offers a range of demographics when it comes to shoppers and lease rates are usually affordable for Glo Domes, Patel said.

“I believe it’s affordable. It depends on the scope of the business that’s within. It’s definitely a little barrier to entry for more recent start-ups but I believe, under the direction of the mall’s current board and what their plan to revamp Southgate Mall stands for, it’s mutually beneficial for businesses to work alongside the mall now,” he said.

Jennifer Clouse opened Skin Chic in Southgate Mall in 2007 after she closed the first location on Higgins Avenue. She said that the mall location has proven to be effective for her business.

“The mall store did really, really great. We were able to start offering services at the mall location and that guaranteed foot traffic was really lovely for us,” Clouse said.

The store expanded three years ago in the mall from a 1,000-square-foot location to a 3,000-square-foot location. Clouse also opened Montana Skin Academy in the mall and said that Washington Prime Group has been cooperative and accommodating with lease agreements.

Later this year, she plans to open a location in the new Mercantile.

“(Washington Prime Group was) incredibly kind in how they helped us get our lease. They got creative with us,” Clouse said. “Schools are a very different business model but they want to have more rounded-out businesses within their mall. Traditional malls aren’t doing super well.”

Having a business in the mall has its perks, where rented spaces share electricity and water costs and mall advertising helps with business marketing. Stores within the mall are able to easily table and sell products at events.

“You don’t have to go out and find those people, they’re just walking by your store front,” Clouse said.

The mall’s surrounding properties include the AMC dine-in theater and Lucky’s Market, which both opened early last year. The Dram Shop is opening a second location across from the theater later this year.

Missoula’s Sears store in the mall closed in 2015, and Herberger’s closed their Missoula location last August. Dillard’s will now be expanding into the former Herberger’s location.

Winger is eager to see what sort of community center the mall will develop into, but is confident that a variety of businesses will look into opening shop and be a part of one of Missoula’s booming centers.

“It’s kind of exciting for us because there are uses that we couldn’t bring in here because we were always 95 to 97 percent leased, and now we’re looking at this as a great opportunity to really mold the mall into something that Missoula, the county and Western Montana can really identify with even more,” Winger said.

Reporter Mari Hall can be reached via email at mari.hall@missoulacurrent.com.