Soraya Tamaddon has a “so-far, so-good” outlook about the West Oaks Mall.
She opened her collectibles and home furnishings store, Home Elements, last month at the mall, 9401 W. Colonial Drive, Ocoee.
“Business is good,” Tamaddon said shortly after a completing a transaction with a shopper on June 19. “The customers are supportive. The perception is this mall is not safe, but I’ve not felt that here. The clientele is nice.”
As smooth jazz played in the background of her store, she described the mall as pleasant and nicely lit and said she enjoys how it has many small businesses like hers, where customers can talk to the storeowners.
“I really invite people to come in and support the mall,” Tamaddon said.
In a number of ways, the mall’s new owner has been working on attracting — and bringing back — shoppers.
When the Great Recession hit several years ago, the mall lost major stores, including Sears, Toys ‘R’ Us and Borders. The vacancies caused some shoppers to change their habits and instead spend their money at other plazas, such as Winter Garden Village at Fowler Groves.
Moonbeam Capital Investments, a Las Vegas-based private equity investment fund, purchased West Oaks Mall and its 33-acre site in November 2012, from Chicago’s General Growth Properties for about $16 million. The mall was built in 1996 and is anchored by Dillard’s, JCPenney and an AMC Movie Theater.
According to information from Moonbeam, the company has extensive expertise in the redevelopment of distressed commercial and residential properties. Its portfolio contains more than 10 million square feet of gross leasable space.
A West Oaks Mall lease plan map from February showed vacancies in about 40 of the mall’s 115 store spaces. The number of vacancies has decreased to about 30 today, said Shawl Pryor, Moonbeam’s senior vice president of real estate.
Pryor said the major factor in the mall’s downfall was General Growth Properties’ inability to pay off its mortgage.
“When that happens with a landlord, it redirects its focus on assets it feels are more important,” he said. “Based on the information that I received, they didn’t address lease renewals or bringing new tenants in. The West Oaks Mall wasn’t their major focus.”
At a recent International Council of Shopping Centers conference in Las Vegas, West Oaks “was one of the premier properties we showcased” to retailers from around the country, Pryor said. And Moonbeam’s leasing team has been working on a number of deals with future tenants, he said.
Stina D’Uva, president of the West Orange Chamber of Commerce, has high hopes for the West Oaks Mall. She grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, which she said has five highly successful malls within several miles of each other.
West Oaks Mall is about 6.5 miles from Winter Garden Village.
“It’s synergy,” she said. “It just needs rebirth, and I think it’s going to happen. With the expected population growth as the economy improves, having an indoor mall as well as Winter Garden Village is needed by the number of people in our community.”
Last year, the chamber helped a focus group that discussed ways of increasing the number of visitors to West Oaks Mall.
“They need stores first to bring the shoppers back,” D’Uva said. “But, the stores they already have are vital. And we know of all the wonderful things they’ve done in the community to bring people to the mall.”
For example, the mall hosts a “Food Truck Crazy” event from 5 to 9 p.m. the second Friday of each month, outside of the food court. And recent events and attractions inside the shopping center have included a Father’s Day table tennis tournament, displays of local art and various fundraisers. The mall also has hosted an online contest to honor teachers.
The West Orange Chamber will host its Small Business and Wellness Expo Sept. 18, followed by its Business After Hours event, at the mall. And in November, the shopping center will host the Orlando Children’s Expo, which normally takes place at the Orange County Convention Center. This expo features more than 100 organizations that serve children, mall marketing manager Sandra French said.
At the former Toys ‘R’ Us on a mall outparcel, two men from Sign Pros, of Winter Garden, made progress on updating the storefront during the late afternoon on June 19. Sign Pros owner Abrahim Ucin said the building soon will house a Top Gun Cheerleading Training Center.
Before Moonbeam purchased the mall, Ucin operated an embroidery business from a pushcart inside the shopping center. He said his lease with General Growth Properties was $3,000 per month.
“That was too high,” Ucin said.
He also said when he was running his embroidery business, some of the kids hanging out at the mall at night would shoplift from merchants. He shook his head while recalling the time when a boy stole a hat from his cart and ran away.
Working with Ucin on June 19 was Jeremy Clapper, an Orlando resident who grew up in Pine Hills.
“About 15 years ago, this place was really lively,” Clapper said of the mall. “Back then, it would have been packed at this time of day. (The mall) needs a lot of help.”
Inside, at the mall’s food court, 21-year-old Amy Escalera ,of Orlando, relaxed next to an empty space that once housed a Starbucks. She works at the mall’s Rainbow clothing store and Victoria’s Secret.
“Over the past three years, the mall has been dead,” she said. “If I wasn’t working here, I wouldn’t come here. From 2007 to 2010, the mall was always full, but it all went downhill. A majority of the stores closed down. I think the movie theater is really holding the mall together.”
Pryor urges people to give the new ownership time.
“It took a number of years for the property to get where it is, so we ask people to be patient while we execute the new redevelopment plan for the center,” he said.
In addition to working with new retail tenants, mall officials soon may welcome Ocoee Police Department officers who specialize in community affairs. Although police already routinely patrol the mall, Ocoee City Manager Rob Frank said he hopes to have a police substation set up inside the shopping center within the next few months.
“Let’s put the officers where the people are,” Frank said. “The stores and businesses they have there are cautiously optimistic about having the tools they need to be successful. We wish them the best.”