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Mall manager sees good business in future

January 13, 2012
photo - Chapel Hills Mall Photo by THE GAZETTE FILE
Chapel Hills Mall Photo by THE GAZETTE FILE 

As general manager of The Citadel mall for more than five years, Victoria Harley had developed a close-knit team — “somewhat of a family,” she says.

So it was with mixed feelings that she left The Citadel, one of two enclosed malls in Colorado Springs, last fall to become general manager of the other one: Chapel Hills Mall.

The shift happened as dominoes fell at both malls. After owners of The Citadel turned over the mall to a Maryland-based lender to avoid foreclosure on a $136 million loan used to buy the mall in 2007, Urban Retail — the company Harley works for — was replaced as manager.

Urban Retail then ended up signing a contract with Garrison Investment Group, a partner in Chapel Hills with Coyote Management of suburban Dallas, to manage that mall. Coyote Management and Garrison bought the 1.2 million-square-foot mall in June.

“I had put a tremendous amount of time and energy into The Citadel and my team there,” Harley said.

But with the change, she was able to stick with Urban, with which she says she had developed a strong working relationship, and stay in Colorado Springs. And since she lives on the north end of the city, she even benefited from a shorter commute.

Harley moved to the Springs from Reno, Nev., her hometown, in 2006. Macerich Co. owned The Citadel at that time. Harley had worked for Macerich, owner of Park Lane Mall in Reno, for 13 years. When Macerich sold Park Lane Mall, it asked Harley where she wanted to go next. She chose the Springs, she said, because the mountains and the weather reminded her of Reno. Five months after she arrived, Macerich sold The Citadel to Midwest Mall Properties, but she stayed on.

“While it was my intention to remain with Macerich,” she said, “some things happen for a reason.”

Question: Are the job and challenges pretty much the same at Chapel Hills, or is the experience different from managing The Citadel?

Answer: The job is much the same at both malls. It is a fascinating position, as you are constantly changing gears all day, every day. That has not changed.

As for the challenges, many of them are the same as well. I am again forming a team that I believe will follow suit as a cohesive group.  Fortunately, I inherited some great employees.

Obviously the malls are different in characteristics, age and demographics, but the job is basically the same.

Q: Any time we write a story on problems at the Chapel Hills or Citadel malls, some readers chime in with “malls are dead” sentiments. How do you assess the future of Chapel Hills Mall, and malls in general?

A: I am confident that Chapel Hills Mall is in a good position to move forward in a positive direction. Given that the former owner had the mall scheduled to sell for several months, they obviously were not going to invest any money in it. Now the mall is owned by a company that plans to invest in its future.

While malls in general do receive a good deal of negative comments, all one had to do was walk through either of the malls this past holiday season to know they are not going anywhere in the near future. It is my opinion that people in general still want to feel the fabric they are buying or try on a pair of shoes before making a purchase. Further, the social value of the shopping mall cannot be replaced by a computer. Certainly, online shopping is competition for bricks and mortar, but I don’t see it replacing malls for decades, if then. 

Q: What is the vacancy rate at the Chapel Hills Mall, and what is being done to fill those spaces? Are the owners any closer to filling the empty Borders store? (Bankrupt Borders closed all its stores last year.)

A: I don’t know a mall manager that will quote an occupancy or vacancy rate, but I will tell you that there is an aggressive plan to lease space at Chapel Hills Mall (including the former Borders space). I work closely with the VP of leasing for the center, and he has some close ties with many retailers.

However, a lease can take several months to negotiate and prepare. Therefore, it is a long process and it will not happen overnight.

Q: How did retailers at the mall fare over the holiday season? And, with consumer confidence climbing but the economy still facing plenty of headwinds, how do you see the year ahead?

A: Although our numbers are still being compiled for the month of December, many of those reporting have indicated an upward trend of 1 percent to 2 percent. I also have reports from long-term Chapel Hills Mall employees that the center saw better traffic this holiday season than it has seen in several years.

As for the year ahead, I am the eternal optimist. Knowing that there is an evolving plan for the center and having a commitment to the mall for making what changes I can make personally, I believe this will be a good year. 

Q: A Colorado Springs developer has plans for a massive retail complex a few miles north of Chapel Hills (Copper Ridge at Northgate), with its own enclosed mall and several upscale stores. If he gets the project off the ground, can Chapel Hills compete?

A: I have been reading about this since I moved here and still there is nothing. Granted, the economy did not help this project, but personally I don’t see this as a threat for several years. 

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