MERIDEN — The city’s Zoning Board of Appeals is expected Monday to discuss approving pickleball courts in the Meriden Mall.
The public hearing addresses the owners’s request to allow indoor recreational uses in a commercial property in the former Old Navy/Meriden Public Library space.
The discussion also highlights a sea change in today’s malls as they pivot from traditional retail to experiential and recreational uses to fill storefronts and draw traffic. The mall is also hosting a popup slingshot range and retail shop in its lower level and a card gaming site/gaming center in the Dick’s wing.
“The pickleball is in the process of setting up,” said David Roy, assistant manager for the Meriden Mall. “It will do great things for a mall. It’s a popular sport in the country. It will draw people in and improve traffic. The slingshots are opening in a couple of weeks. We are doing everything we can to lease mulitple spaces. We have a lot of people expressing interest in coming in.”
Arthur Rodriguez moved his card game shop and gaming center from downtown Southington to the Meriden Mall last May for added space to host trading card game tournaments. The business is called Imperial Gaming & Collectibles and is next to the site of the proposed pickleball courts.
“We have our following, we have a 2,500 player base,” Rodriguez said. “Our players travel from all over. We had 69 players show up on Saturday. We have multiple tournaments daily.”
The target demographic for Imperial Gaming is age 14 to 26, which complements the pickleball and slingshot age range. Both host tournaments and spectators, Rodriguez said.
“They should get away from retail to fill up space,” Rodriguez said. “We should become a small business parkade, like in Orlando or Miami, where people can walk in and say ‘what does this business have to offer?’”
Pickeball Meriden LLC is run by Michael Marotta and his family member and co-owner Vincent Scapati.
“We have found a suitable space (the Old Navy) that will accommodate up to six playing courts, room for 24 players at any given time,” Marotta wrote to the Planning Commission. “We expect to average eight parking spaces. … However this number may range from one to 25 depending on customer engagement. We plan to operate during the mall’s regular operating hours.”
Retail experts are studying the impact alternative uses have on malls that include “medretail,” or medical offices and treatments, warehouses, apartments, gyms and indoor recreation.
“This is a catalyst for new customer counts,” said Burt Flickinger, a consumer industry consultant with the Strategic Resource Group in New York. “These are young, highly-educated consumers who were shopping at Amazon and getting everything delivered. The gaming business can draw thousands.”
The pandemic helped drive a stake into the heart of struggling malls like Meriden’s. Stores moved away primarily to the more successful TownLine Square Shopping Center on the Meriden/Wallingford border.
In the meantime, malls have turned to alternatives to help fill vacancies, but few uses in Meriden have generated excitement. The Art Box gallery on the upper level has closed to make way for Parade of Novelty Sports, and the H&M fashion store also shuttered. Plans for the proposed 78 Dinner Theater in the mall’s busiest wing haven’t materialized. And Yale New Haven Health’s plans to transform both floors of the former Macy’s into medical offices and treatment space have stalled.
“The aftermath of COVID has slowed our timeline for this project and we are working through various associated issues,” stated a spokeswoman for YNHH in an email. “We expect to provide updates in the near future.”
According to Roy, the Yale plans are ongoing despite the delays. Some interior work is complete and permits are active, city officials have said.
But the strip plazas are hosting the big box retailers and have become an attractive alternative for national chains. Flickinger called Townline Square’s success a retail renaissance. In fact, as Ulta and Old Navy left the mall for the strip plaza. Barnes & Noble plans to open a 9,000-square-foot shop in a former Pier 1 imports.
“There are a lot of abandoned Kmarts, and sporting goods sites, Borders books, and regional home improvement stores,” Flickinger said. “But many are viable retailers in these strip centers. Collectively, they are very complimentary and not competitive.”
National retailers such as Barnes & Noble are seeing they don’t need 25,000 to 30,000 square feet but can service several categories in 8,000 to 9,000 square feet. Having Big Y as an anchor tenant also helps, Flickinger said.
Research has showed that consumers prefer retail stores with solar roofs such as Big Y and BJ’s Wholesale
Club that are passing energy savings onto the consumers. (Meriden’s Big Y does not have a solar roof although the grocery franchise is a leader in solar proponents.)
In contrast, mall tenants face higher rents for leasing areas because they are paying for everything on the old legacy stores that closed, such as Macy’s and JCPenney. Flickinger added that commercial property taxes at malls and strip centers make up about half or more of a public school budget.
“Some of the best strategic thinking in North America is in the Northeast that is experiencing a retail renaissance,” Flickinger said. “It’s recreating a tremendous opportunity for economic gain and satisfies consumer demand that wasn’t satisfied during the pandemic.”