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Anchorage mall finds new life

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Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2012 6:16 pm | Updated: 12:07 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - At the Northway Mall you can buy pho, wigs, watermelon-flavored popcorn, fried catfish, stun guns disguised as lipstick cases and West African formal wear. You can leave with a rare copy of a 1994 Sega Genesis video game, a T-shirt that says "FBI: Female Body Inspector" or an introduction to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You can get your hair braided into cornrows, buy a plane ticket to South Korea and hem a wedding dress.

More remarkable is what you won't find: many empty storefronts.

The Northway Mall, long one of Anchorage's most beleaguered, is 97 percent occupied with merchants - the highest rate in years, says its manager Mao Tosi.

"It looks like a mall again," Tosi said from his office recently.

And in its newest incarnation, a dearth of national chain stores and rock-bottom rents of $1 per square foot have allowed for a blossoming of small-scale entrepreneurship.

It's the latest chapter in a boom-and-bust - but mostly bust - story that started when the mall debuted to great fanfare in 1980, a time when indoor shopping malls were novel and celebrated.

Over subsequent decades it fell into decline, hemorrhaging national chain stores and customers who decamped for more modern offerings.

By 2000, a Belden Associates survey showed that three in 10 Anchorage adults had shopped at the mall.

When Tosi, a well-known community activist and former NFL lineman, was hired to take over day-to-day mall management in March of 2011, things were at a low point. The mall had an occupancy of only 60 percent.

A gaping hole loomed where out-of-business anchor tenant Gottschalks had once dispensed sweaters and perfume. The parking lot was empty, Tosi said. No cars meant no customers.

"It doesn't look good on a mall," he said.

Fortunes began to turn when two big national chains - Planet Fitness and Burlington Coat Factory - moved in last year.

Today, the Burlington Coat Factory is one of the busiest in the Pacific Northwest and drives a lot of mall traffic, Tosi said. "It kind of saved us," he said.

Smaller, mostly local mom-and-pop merchants followed.

On a cold late morning in November, a security guard on a Segway scooter zips down the concourse, past shops offering sports jerseys, comics and frozen yogurt. A young family pushes a double stroller into Dollar Power. Teenagers eat takeout kung-pao chicken and extra-tall energy drinks at tables with a view of the semi-full parking lot.

The mall is quiet, but not empty.

It looks a lot like the diverse, densely-populated Northeast Anchorage neighborhood that surrounds it, Tosi said.

Mormon missionaries Dylan Sant and Wyatt Hickman have been walking the mall in their quest to share their faith with Anchorage residents. It's a good place, they said, because A. It's warm, and B. It offers a mix of people to talk with.

"We see Samoans, Hawaiians, almost everybody is here," Sant said.

Ian Clark, the owner of Ian's Game Paradise, says the clientele at his gaming shop is mainly from the neighborhood and the owners of Northway Mall stores tend to be locals too. "Lynn's Pulltabs is actually Lynn," he said.

Tosi says he's tried to bring more community events to the mall. In the past year there's been hula-hoop performances, beauty pageants, farmer's markets, car shows, break-dancing, a haunted house and the 44th Annual World Championship Dog Weight Pull, sponsored by the Saint Bernard Club of Alaska. A new nonprofit art gallery showcasing local photographers, painters and carvers is the latest effort.

Many Northway Mall merchants are first-time business owners lured by low overhead costs.

When Barbara Hogan's daughter was accosted by a thief who stole her purse and shoved her in a car at a gas station, she decided to start a niche self-defense store.

Hogan checked out the Dimond Mall but found the kiosk prices too expensive.

Wo-Man Defense Products (the name is the response people have to being tased: "like whoa, man," Hogan says) opened on Nov. 6. Stun guns and tasers disguised as cell phones are big sellers so far.

Her children and granddaughter help run the store while Hogan undergoes treatment for breast cancer.

"I've wanted to be in my own business for as long as I can remember," she said.

Autumn Kim took a chance on starting her first business, Queen's Beauty Supply, when the mall offered her a deal on rent in exchange for signing a lease.

Now she presides over shelves of hair extensions, relaxants and straightening irons. Even though the mall isn't always crowded it is friendly, she said.

Still, opening a business is a risk.

"Of course it's scary," she said. "I worry all the time."

The mall's corporate owners, a Eureka, Calif.-based real estate investment company called Security National Properties, filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2011 via an affiliate called Security National Properties Funding III LLC, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek. Calls to the company's California offices were not returned.

Tosi says he doesn't believe the parent company's restructuring will have any immediate impacts on the mall.

Whether the new crop of small businesses will endure is another question.

Ali Joseph, a Trinidad-born former Home Depot manager who ditched corporate life to start his own business selling Organo Gold coffee, said his location near the Carrs Safeway doesn't get much foot traffic as the entrance near Burlington Coat Factory and Planet Fitness.

"It could always be better," he said.

Turnover is still high. Tosi even bartered rental space for the services of a locksmith.

He'd like to see more national stores to help pull traffic and balance the smaller businesses.

And there are still vacancies to fill: A large specialty infusion pharmacy just left a 5,000 square foot space to be filled.

For merchants like Erlon Coelho, who sells flavored popcorn, candied apples and baked pretzels at his Sweet Sins Gourmet Popcorn store, the mall feels full of potential right now.

He thinks the holiday season is going to be a good one. And in the mall he sees the raw materials — space and freedom — for more ambitious ventures. On his iPhone he has pictures of a large, rideable electric train he'd like to bring in as a tourist and family attraction.

"I see a light at the end of the tunnel, put it this way," he said.

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