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Dave Zajac Record-Journal
JC Penney customers enter the store at the Westfield Meriden mall, Wednesday afternoon, January 15, 2014. | Dave Zajac / Record-Journal

JC Penney departure leaves hole in Meriden mall

MERIDEN — As JC Pen-ney employees wind down toward a May store closure, public speculation over who might fill the large anchor space at Westfield Meriden mall has heated up.

Facebook comments to a Tuesday query resulted in ideas ranging from a multi-screen movie theater that includes the large-screen IMAX format to a Whole Foods grocery store, a public marketplace with locally made food, vendors and entertainment, an Ikea furniture store, Trader Joe’s, a Bass Pro Shop, Nike Store and more.

What many speculators aren’t aware of are the complex factors that go into determining how that space is eventually going to look. For those reasons, retail experts will speak freely about the challenges, but resist speculation.

Former Mayor Michael Rohde said he met often with Westfield management about building a lifestyle center on top of Dick’s Sporting Goods that would include a movie theater. Rohde said the mall supported the idea but the recession made it difficult to get a movie company to sign on. He doubts that has changed now that JC Penney has left what could be a ready-made spot for such a concept.

“I don’t know if there is any renewed interest,” Rohde said. “It’s (the economy) been the problem all along.”

Matt Halprin, a principle with New England Retail properties said it’s important to consider the competition against theaters in Southington, Waterbury, Berlin, Wallingford, at a time when theaters are watching their bottom lines.

“I’m sure that’s a possibility they’re exploring if they’re sure it can be supported,” Halprin said. “There are a lot of options.”

The Meriden JC Penney is among 33 under performing stores nationwide set to close, the company announced in January.

Other things Westfield has to consider when filling 150,000 square feet are restrictive covenants made with other tenants. For instance, a store such as Dick’s may have a restriction against another sporting goods store.

Westfield has contracts with national retailers that feed off anchors and can make deals. But anchors are critical traffic drivers for most retailers.

Juliet Burdelski, Director of Economic Development for the city said she likes the idea of a movie theater at the mall and uses that are more community-based, like the malls of yesterday.

“The things I’ve read about creative uses of mall space incorporate entertainment, art, sports, music recreation, theater, a participatory kind of culture,” Burdelski said. “If they were looking at that, it could be not just a retail experience but a community experience.”

Several responders stated they wanted to see more local use of the space reminiscent of Chelsea Gardens in New York, or the Pittsburgh Public Marketplace, that features local vendors, food and music for a genuine community feel.

Westfield spokeswoman Katherine Rioux said decisions about the space are in the hands of the Westfield Group corporate leasing and development team that operates off-site. Westfield recently announced TJ Maxx would be moving into the former Barnes & Nobles space providing some job opportunities for the displaced JC Penney employees.

“They stay pretty tight-lipped until there is a signed lease,” Rioux said about Westfield management.

There are also the city’s demographics to consider. A Whole Foods may reject the mall because of shopper income, the same reason Lord & Taylor left and Dick’s Sporting Goods moved in.

Another consideration in the mix is how the space will be divided. The probability of finding a single user for the space is virtually impossible, so the first cut will determine who else can move in, commercial broker Wayne D’Amico told the Record-Journal shortly after the closure was announced.

“It’s a big challenge to see what these carcasses are going to look like,” D’Amico said. (203) 317-2255 Twitter: @Cconnbiz

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