CLARENCE, N.Y. - When Eastern Hills Mall opened in 1971, America loved shopping malls.
But now, nearly a half-century later, the business model of malls has changed, thanks in large part to the competition of online shopping. Malls can no longer survive by simply selling designer clothes and the latest technology-- they need to find a way to attract consumers by offering them something they can't find online.
One solution: the "lifestyle center." Facilities across the United States have transformed from traditional enclosed shopping centers into these open-air plazas, which gives shoppers the atmosphere of a mini-downtown area. Minneapolis has one. So does Cleveland, Pittsburgh and several East Coast cities.
Western New York doesn't have a lifestyle center yet.
So Eastern Hills Mall, sensing an opportunity, might try to be the first.
In an attempt to adapt to the changing times, the mall will now explore this new "town-center" model of a lifestyle center, according to General Manager Russell Fulton. In an email, Fulton said the redevelopment could include condominium space, hotel space, new restaurants, offices, fitness centers or sports facilities, all tied together by open walkways and plazas.
Fulton is collaborating on the plan with one of his store owners, Nathan Mroz, who runs BFLO Gallery and Gift Shop. Mroz moved into his storefront at Eastern Hills Mall in November, and he wants to translate his own business success to the rest of the mall.
Mroz already created his own early rendering of a lifestyle center -- which could even include a water park -- and now he's seeking investors to join the redevelopment.
"We're just getting the word out. At this point, it looks like is strong interest," Mroz said. "It has a lot of potential, just being on the Transit corridor, an area that has blossomed in development in the past few years."
Mroz tagged the redevelopment idea with a price tag of about $300 million, but he stressed that the figure is a loose ballpark estimate. In fact, Mroz said this plan is very preliminary-- but that doesn't mean it's not a serious idea.
"Now, it feels like it's real," Mroz said. "This is really a time where redevelopment is really going to happen."
Mroz also said he's considered the idea of a lifestyle center for several years.
"When I've gone to Maryland or New Jersey to visit family, I see these things, and I wonder... 'Why doesn't Buffalo have one of these yet?'" Mroz said.
Eastern Hills Mall is already making some moves. Fulton, the general manager, confirmed the mall is in the process of purchasing the space currently occupied by Macy's, which announced it will close this spring. Macy's owns its own space, but the mall's purchase will allow it to further explore development in that particular portion of the mall.
Town of Clarence Supervisor Patrick Casilio told 2 On Your Side that the town is pleased with the sale of the Macy's space to the mall. He also said the town is aware of the mall's early ideas for redevelopment, and that it will watch with close interest if the process moves forward.
"I think this is really the perfect opportunity, now that Macy's is on its way out of here," Mroz said. "The whole new concept isn't going to shut the door on Eastern Hills and all of its businesses, but it's going to incorporate nationals and locals at the same time, and really focus on the experience that malls can't really offer anymore. It's just a new concept to bring people in."
The mall has relied heavily on local ownership, which includes Mroz's store. It also includes Kim Nelson, who has operated a toy store named Raff and Friends for nearly a decade at Eastern Hills Mall. This spring, Nelson will move her store to a larger location within Eastern Hills, occupying the old Gap space.
Nelson said the key to the future is simple.
"Positive energy," Nelson said, "and bringing in people who want to be here."