Malls Now Fishing for Customers

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What are we going to do with all the empty stores at malls and shopping centers on Long Island?

It seems like every day we hear about another big box retailer having financial problems and getting ready to shut their doors for good. Sears, one of the oldest retailers in the country, may have avoided a complete shutdown recently. They already closed a few giant stores out here. They were on the verge of closing them all. Just like that.

Last year, I wrote about how online retailer Amazon is trying to take over the entire world and maybe I’m not that far off. People are just not shopping at big retail stores anymore. The two anchors of the Westfield Sunrise Mall in Massapequa are Macy’s and Sears. Have you been to either of these two stores recently? Macy’s is a shell of itself, with more floor space than they know what to do with. Sears has become a giant showroom for people to walk around and not buy anything, except Craftsman tools. Of course, if you have a Kenmore vacuum cleaner, it’s still one of the few places where you can get replacement bags. Unfortunately for Sears, not a lot of people have Kenmore vacuums anymore.

Owners of these properties need tenants to survive and thinking outside the big box stores may be a way to draw people onto their properties. Recently, national restaurant chains, movie theatres, health and fitness centers and even doctor offices are popping up in spaces that used to be reserved for retail shopping. Why? These businesses are not losing customers to online shopping.

SeaQuest, a company that has opened numerous interactive aquariums and wildlife exhibits inside failing shopping malls, is looking to rent over 27,000 square feet of space in the Westfield Sunrise Mall, at a cost over $5 million and expects to draw 300,000 to 500,000 visitors a year. Imagine that? An aquarium inside the mall. You think the vendors at the food court could use a little more foot traffic?

Although the Town of Oyster Bay yet to approve the permit request from owner Vince Covino, there has already been opposition and protests from PETA and others, regarding the treatment of animals in the care of Mr. Covino’s seven other interactive facilities. Back in November, Massapequa Observer editor Christopher Birsner reported on actor and former Massapequa resident Alec Baldwin’s opposition to the permit request by SeaQuest Holdings.

There is no question that every resident of our town should be concerned about the safety of these animals, but if you’ve ever applied for a home improvement permit, you know what a rigorous process that can be. Our elected officials are not just handing Covino and SeaQuest a permit. They are not allowing them to operate a facility in a public space that is dangerous to the animals or the customers.

Retail shopping is dying a slow, painful death, right before our eyes here on Long Island. These behemoth shopping malls will never be able to fill those huge voids with another shoe store or Starbucks. Filling that empty space with entertainment, instead of retail, is not such a bad idea, as long as everything is on the up-and-up.

SeaQuest has proven successful in some locations, revitalizing dying malls in Salt Lake City, Utah and Las Vegas, but has run into trouble in Colorado for violating local permits. Another SeaQuest is set to open this Spring to help the Rosedale Center in Minnesota compete with an aquarium in the Mall of America.

I understand that many people are up in arms over zoos and aquariums, but I like and appreciate those facilities. I enjoyed taking my young children to the Bronx Zoo and various aquariums, including the wonderful facility out in Riverhead. I’m never going to visit Africa or journey to the bottom of the sea.

These exhibits, if done properly and humanely, provide us with a glimpse of a world we know nothing about.

And if that helps get the people back, who’s to say they won’t stop for a pair of sneakers on their way out? Maybe, if the mall survives, I’ll still be able to get my vacuum cleaner bags from Sears.

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