Martin Aids in Landmark Restoration for Wynfrey & Galleria

“The extensive retail mix offered here is unparalleled with any of our competitors, ” says mall manager Thomas Martin. “I have an overwhelming sense of pride as the redevelopment and renovation of the Riverchase Galleria nears.”

Martin grew up in Ohio and was tired of brutal winters by the time he graduated from Miami University there. It seemed like everyone was moving to Atlanta at the time, and Martin couldn’t get Georgia off his mind. He passed on a possible job with Cincinnati-based Proctor & Gamble in favor of employment with Davison’s, then a fixture in downtown Atlanta and a major competitor of Rich’s.

Roughly 30 years later, Martin is still in retail, still in the South and glad to be here. He moved to Birmingham from Charlotte more than a year ago as senior general manager for General Growth Properties, which manages the Riverchase Galleria and is part owner of the mall with Montgomery-based Jim Wilson & Associates.

“I moved to Birmingham to take the position with GGP, ” the 51-year-old Martin says. “I have always enjoyed renovations, expansions and opening new centers, plus I had many friends who worked for GGP and spoke highly of the company. They were right — it’s a good place to work. The added benefit was moving to a city and area that welcomes you with opened arms.”

During Martin’s time here, the Galleria has undergone an extensive renovation now in its final stages. He expects all heavy construction activities to be completed in August, with the property’s new and expanding retailers up and running by the end of November. The Galleria, which has 10, 000 parking spaces and 1.6 million square feet of retail space, remains the largest enclosed mall in the state and is the nation’s 43rd largest mall.

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Belk, with three locations in the Galleria, will continue to occupy the most space. Von Maur, an upscale specialty retailer based in Davenport, Iowa, is building its own store on the former site of Macy’s and will be the second-largest anchor when it opens in early November. J.C. Penney, Sears and Macy’s remain at the mall, and California-based Forever 21 is more than quadrupling its space to more than 66, 000 square feet. Old Navy will become part of the tenant mix when it occupies space vacated by Forever 21.

Other upgrades are being made to the Center Court area, and the mall’s popular carousel should be back in action by early August. Soft seating for common areas and new furniture for the food court are expected to be in place during August.

When first announced, the estimated cost for the renovation ranged from $60 million to $90 million. Martin says the renovation is within budget, but a final cost has not yet been determined.

Perhaps the most obvious change at the Galleria will be Von Maur’s presence on the former Macy’s site. Von Maur, with roots in the late 1800s, currently has 27 stores in 11 states. The chain’s three-story store at the Galleria will cover 181, 000 square feet and be the first Von Maur in Alabama and only the third in the Deep South.

“The Riverchase Galleria is a great location, ” says Amy Davis, advertising manager at Von Maur. “It’s a key destination with a wide mix of retailers. It’s in a growing area, and I certainly think our customer base will appreciate what we’re going to do there.”

Von Maur’s Galleria store will include a large center court atrium where live piano music will provide a relaxed ambience suited for shopping. Von Maur’s stores are known for very open floor plans and are designed for more of a residential look and feel.

With most of the renovation completed now, Martin sees good days ahead. “Anytime you invest such a significant amount of money in a shopping center it shows your commitment to the center and to the community, ” he says. “Retailers who may be looking at the market always take notice of this commitment. Our guests have long expressed the desire for better retail options and I believe we are beginning to deliver.

“Since the announcement of the redevelopment, several new tenants have joined our retail mix, including Jared’s The Galleria of Jewelry, Destination Maternity, Pandora and Earth Fare. Once the redevelopment is complete and we move beyond the upcoming holiday season, I believe we will continue to see renewed leasing activity within the shopping center.”

As Andy Peters leads a group of visitors through the renovated Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Wynfrey Hotel, there are times when the tour evokes thoughts of James Bond-like gadgetry.

If guests get out of bed during the night, they will automatically trigger a nightlight to help them navigate the room, says Peters, the hotel’s general manager.

When guests want to access their rooms, they just hold their FID card to the door and presto. “You don’t swipe these cards, and these cards don’t get killed when you’ve had them in the same pocket as your cell phone, ” Peters says.

In one of the hotel’s two restaurants, Peters demonstrates how MERK’s Tavern & Kitchen can be transformed from a coffee and breakfast spot in the morning to a restaurant and bar later in the day. Cabinets built into a wall sport a black-panel design as the day begins. Push the panels, though, and they swivel 180 degrees, displaying a menagerie of liquor bottles as a backdrop for the bar that anchors late-afternoon and evening happy hours.

Peters’ tour of the upscale hotel clearly shows a $20 million renovation including new everything for the 329 guest rooms and more than 32, 000 square feet of meeting space. Begun last year, the work entailed new carpet, walls, ceilings, beds and furniture throughout the premises, with a new sound system to boot.

Renovation of the swimming pool and workout area will essentially complete the upgrade during August.

Peters, 63, came to the hotel five years ago. He has spent 40 years in the hospitality industry, including 21 years with Marriott and 19 years with Davidson Hotels and Resorts, which manages Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Wynfrey Hotel. Wanda Gaddis, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, has more than 20 years of experience in the industry.

Peters and Gaddis both saw the need for an extensive upgrade. They were aware of the continued aging of the property, which opened in 1986; the harsh impact of the recession; and the continued increase in competition. “OK, the bright colors and the brass in the lobby were gaudy, but they were awesome when this hotel opened, ” Gaddis says. “It just became time for a renovation. This hotel is the grand old lady of the South. It’s the premier property in Alabama. But the grand old lady was tired. She needed a face-lift, a new dress, everything.”

An integral piece of the upgrade was a financial injection from Ohio-based Rockbridge Partners, which has been involved with more than 300 hotel investments in the United States during the past two decades, investing nearly $3 billion in the hospitality industry.  Rockbridge Partners now owns the hotel with Montgomery-based Jim Wilson & Associates, the original developer of the hotel and adjacent Riverchase Galleria.

It was also decided that affiliating the hotel with a leading brand offered several advantages, so Hyatt was called into the picture. Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Wynfrey Hotel is Hyatt’s 509th global property and third in Alabama.

“I’ve had people ask me about Hyatt taking over, and I tell them that Hyatt is not taking over. We’ve brought Hyatt in to help give us a jolt, a jumpstart, to help drive some business, and we feel confident about being affiliated with Hyatt, ” says Peters.

“Customers today want the consistency of a brand. They know what a Marriott is, they know what a Hyatt is, and a lot of customers are looking for rewards points, which we can do with Hyatt. And Hyatt’s national sales experience will complement our sales experience locally.  We’re already getting sales leads, but we know there’s going to be a ramp-up … The owners are looking for a return on their investment, and we’re looking for business to kick in.”

Some things will remain the same at Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Wynfrey Hotel. Shula’s Steak House, for example, remains. Guests can still pass through the lobby directly into the Riverchase Galleria to shop at the largest enclosed mall in Alabama. In addition to restaurants in the hotel, they can choose from several others rimming the property. And they can still get a shoe shine from Ronald Grant, a shoeologist at the hotel the past 14 years whose business card says: “You can’t look neat if your shoes look beat.”

Just as Grant knows the importance of a pair of polished shoes, Peters understands the importance of the huge renovation and Hyatt affiliation. But Peters also knows the value of people like Grant and the things they do that are so important.

The most important thing, says Peters, is the welcome at the front desk. “If they don’t get great service, nothing else

Charlie Ingram is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.

text by Charlie Ingram

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