Carmen Spinoso says he finds the nation’s struggling malls to be like baskets of fruit.
“If you let the apples get rotten and the bananas brown and it’s unattractive, no one’s going to go there and eat from it,” he says. “However, if you tend the basket properly and you replace the rotten apples with nice shiny red, delicious apples and bright yellow bananas, and some raspberries and blueberries, then people will come back to the basket because it’s attractive and it gives them reasons to want to come there.”
Spinoso is the chairman and CEO of Spinoso Real Estate Group (SREG), a privately held, New York-based real estate firm that specializes in managing, leasing and repurposing enclosed shopping malls across the country, many of which have taken some serious hits the past decade.
SREG has worked with numerous malls across the country, one of which is Gadsden Mall in northeast Alabama.
“The mall was purchased a handful of years ago, and the group that purchased it asked us if we would help them revitalize it and we started to work on some plans,” Spinoso says. “At the time, Sears was closing, and JCPenney had already closed. We started really getting to know the community and spending time in the market and started to develop some plans and then ultimately we evolved those plans and started to execute them and that kind of brings us to today.”
Spinoso, who has been in the real estate industry for about 30 years, says he had noticed malls falling into neglect over time.
“I decided that there was an opportunity to build a company that was an absolute specialist in bringing new life and revitalizing mall properties, because I think they are viable despite what the headline news says,” he says.
Spinoso says the first step in mall revitalization is getting to know the market and the community, talking to people, and trying to determine what things people want and what uses would be embraced. From there, planning needs to fit the space and needs of both customers and tenants.
The Gadsden Mall, Spinoso says, presented a “real opportunity for increasing and improving the selection of dining choices, as well as entertainment offerings. We looked at the location, the proximity to the park, the existing cinema, as a larger size of entertainment venue. And we really saw a market that could use some additional entertainment options. So, we started looking around for restaurant operators, entertainment, venues that we thought, based on our conversations with people in the community and our own observations, would be attractive.”
One such tenant is The Alley, which repurposed a 35,000-square-foot former Sears building.
Bethanne Mashburn, a Gadsden native, is co-owner of The Alley, a state-of-the-art family entertainment center that includes an 18-lane bowling alley, a 60-seat video arcade, a virtual reality component and indoor food truck.
“We’ve got a restaurant featuring Joe’s Food, which is a local company, it’s not a franchise, and then we also have a bar and the bowling alley, which is more of a boutique bowling alley,” Mashburn says. “Maybe you would say it’s kind of an experience to come in. There is a park with a grassy hill and trees and there are subway tunnels that you can explore and there’s a hidden slide. It is kind of an experience. It’s not your run-of-the-mill bowling alley.”
Mashburn says The Alley “happens to be in an old Sears building. And that is where I had my first job when I was young. And I grew up hanging out in the Gadsden Mall. It is prime real estate in Gadsden and I have always been a fan and a champion
for the Gadsden Mall. I think it is the heart of our community.”
It wasn’t easy opening a bowling alley in the middle of a pandemic, but Mashburn says the contract had been signed.
“We took precautions, we tried our hardest to make sure that everybody would be safe, we sanitized and we separated people, and we did everything that we knew to do and people were supportive and I’m forever thankful for our community for kind of seeing me through that opening,” she says.
Mashburn calls SREG “an amazing company.”
“They are my partner in this,” she says. “They’ve done everything and anything to make sure that I’ve been successful and I’m very grateful for the type of people who make up their company.”
Spinoso also identified a need for dining options and found Tre Ragazzi, a family-owned Italian restaurant that is renovating 5,000 square feet in the mall to create a flagship location that will be large enough to allow the owners to train franchise owners and expand the restaurant’s menu.
Kevin Napper is co-owner of Tre Ragazzi with his wife, Toni. He has been in the Italian food business from more than 30 years, both selling and serving, and opened his restaurant in downtown Gadsden 12 years ago.
The restaurant’s logo is a blacked-out silhouette of the Nappers’ three sons, all of whom are involved in the business. The family has two Tre Ragazzi restaurants and Southern Café, a breakfast diner, and is in the process of setting up a franchise operation.
Napper says the mall was “the perfect spot for us. We loved that The Alley was coming in. We loved what they were doing with the mall.”
The Nappers, like Mashburn, have sentimental connections to the mall.
“Me and my wife met in the break room at Sears, which was the location our building is in,” he says. “We met there over 34 years ago now, and that’s where we started dating. And it’s really interesting to walk into the space now that is almost finished and kind of say OK, we started here 34 years ago.”
Napper says the Spinoso group approached him as SREG was looking to really expand the mall.
“I think they were surprised at Gadsden and how the local restaurants do really well and where it’s not really a chain city,” he says. “We felt honored that they came to us and approached us.”
Spinoso says the mall, which has 60 or so tenants, is “constantly evolving, and we think that bringing in different uses is important.”
That mix is critical, Spinoso says.
“At the end of the day, if you have the right collection of reasons for people to come to your property — stores and restaurants and entertainment, venues and services and other things — if you have the right collection of uses people will drive farther to get there,” he says. “They’ll stay longer when there and they’ll spend more. And it’ll be a vibrant productive venture.”
Bill Gerdes and Art Meripol are Birmingham-area freelance contributors to Business Alabama.