Decatur Mall is enjoying a resurgence that will benefit all of Decatur.
It’s worth remembering that a private equity firm — the same type of business maligned in the GOP primaries and the general election last year — is making it happen.
Today, Carmike 12 movie theater will open in the mall. It replaces the run-down Carmike 8 located off 14th Street Southeast. The state-of-the-art theater is unlike any Decatur previously has enjoyed. Its 12 screens will show movies to up to 2,400 patrons in high-back seats. Its showcase is the BigD auditorium, with 600 stadium seats and a 60-foot-wide, 3½-story-tall screen with 3-D capability.
The mall owner, New York City-based Garrison Opportunity Fund LLC, believes the theater will attract more customers to the mall, in turn attracting more retail tenants.
Odds are, it is right.
Take a look at the license plates near the theaters in Madison County any weekend, and many are from Morgan County. In a weekly ritual, hundreds of Decatur residents drive to Madison County to see a movie. While there, they go shopping. They buy gas. They eat at restaurants.
Retailers and restaurants that otherwise might have tapped into Decatur demand have not done so, because they know many of our discretionary dollars are being spent elsewhere.
Sales tax revenue that could have been helping fix our streets or fund other city services was instead helping residents of Madison and Huntsville.
The improvements at the mall, already significant, could change the retail landscape in Decatur. If all goes as the owner hopes, the theater not only will keep Decatur residents from spending so much of their money on the other side of the river, it will attract more residents from Lawrence and Limestone counties.
The hoped-for transformation would be dramatic.
In 2004, the mall was struggling under Colonial Properties Trust ownership. The city offered it $4 million to refurbish the mall, but Colonial was not able to add enough of its own capital to make the deal work. First Republic bought the mall from Colonial Properties in July 2007, just before the recession hit.
Garrison bought the mall out of bankruptcy in September 2010 for a low price, but the prospects seemed bleak. Tenants were leaving as soon as their leases expired. The roof was leaking and paint was peeling.
Drywall covered the entrances of many of the spaces that previously contained bustling stores. City officials were trying to figure out what they would do when the 576,000-square-foot eyesore went bust.
Because it was a healthy private equity firm, Garrison had an advantage the previous owners lacked. It had cash. Whereas the dominant question of previous owners was whether they could afford to fix the roof, Garrison’s question was whether the cost of renovations would ultimately generate a profit. Garrison saw the weekend exodus of Decatur residents and figured it could improve the mall’s fortunes and its profits by offering the services residents wanted, closer to home.
The story still is being written, but the conclusion could be a transformation of Decatur’s retail sector.
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