(WBIR-Oak Ridge) At the site of the old decaying mall in Oak Ridge, these days the honking in the parking lot primarily comes from geese.
"Does that speak volumes or what? There are geese walking through this parking lot that feel very comfortable because there's hardly any traffic," said Oak Ridge mayor Tom Beehan. "It appears to be a big wasteland. There's only two stores left in the entire mall. We know there's a market here for retailers. Yet, when you drive by this parking lot and see it empty, it makes your stomach drop."
The location started as a vibrant outdoor shopping center in the 1950s with staples such as J.C. Penney Company and Woolworth's. In the 1980s the shopping center became an enclosed mall. Over the last decade, the shops inside the mall have died a slow death.
"It's a big vacant lot with no retail going on. That's about to change," said Beehan.
Crosland Southeast, the North Carolina-based developer in the process of purchasing the old mall, unveiled concrete plans for the future of the site on Wednesday. The future design looks a lot more like the open-air entrances to retail space of the past, along with the contemporary additions of office and residential buildings.
"Some of the existing buildings have good bones, but everything in the middle that you used to walk through that was the old mall is going to be torn down. You'll be able to shop here, there will be small offices, and you'll be able to live here," said Beehan.
Crosland hopes to create a downtown-feel for the proposed mixed-use development, which will also include a hotel. According to the master plan, retailers will include the existing Walmart, JC Penney, and Belk. As for new stores coming to Oak Ridge, Beehan said he is excited about the names but cannot reveal them at this point.
"I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you," joked Beehan. "It's too early to announce anything right now. But the developers already have commitments from retailers to fill every space. I'm excited, because they are places where I want to shop. We've had a lot of 'leakage' the last decade where people leave Oak Ridge and shop in other places. This is going to keep folks able to shop in town and attract others to shop in Oak Ridge."
Crosland says its plans for Oak Ridge are comparable to the Stonebridge development in Richmond, Virginia. The company was also responsible for the Biltmore Park Town Square in Asheville, NC, the Providence Marketplace in Mt. Juliet, TN, and the Richmond Town Center in Richmond, KY.
Crosland is asking the City of Oak Ridge for a TIF (Tax Increment Financing), meaning no current tax dollars will go into the development. Beehan said the resulting tax revenue that would be reinvested in the site via a TIF will pay off with the creation of almost 1,000 new jobs and increase annual city and county sales tax revenues by more than $2 million.
"We're turning the corner. This is something people have been asking for years. It's not just the money. It's just not the retail. It's the feeling of excitement in the community," said Beehan.
Beehan said he predicts if everything goes well, demolition of the old mall could begin sometime in early 2014.