1 of 2
Landon and Laila Mazsure can’t resist the jets in May. Photo by Jay Paul
2 of 2
Previously serving as facilities manager, Steve Bonniville became Stony Point’s general manager in January. Photo by Jay Paul
The fountain at Stony Point Fashion Park exerts a magnetism on the 5-and-under set. Intermittent jets of cool water are like playmates whose call is always louder than mom's order to stay dry.
Ten years after Stony Point opened, there remains an informality to this fountain that's at odds with the high-end, Rodeo Drive-like perception of this mall.
On an unseasonably warm weekday April afternoon, Sarah Vaughan camps out on a bench, Kindle in hand and a crumpled Gap bag full of items to return tucked under her purse. Her son, 3-year-old Aidan, clad in bathing trunks that otherwise wouldn't see chlorination for another two months, splashes nearby.
"I figured this was the easiest and possibly the only place to get in the water right now," says Vaughan, who lives about 20 minutes away in Midlothian, but prefers this mall to others.
"It's less crowded," she says, depositing her Kindle to turn her attention to Aidan, whose toddler brain interprets possession as nine-tenths of the law as it relates to a green plastic beach bucket belonging to another youngster. "It's easier to find things — and I like that it's not two stories. And I don't like the West End very much."
But what Vaughan does like about Stony Point is exactly what she doesn't like: the lack of crowds.
Even on a beautiful afternoon like today, sun overhead and temperatures in the 80s, the European-style walkways are sparsely dotted with shoppers. At lunch and dinner, crowds will roll in, packing P.F. Chang's and Brio Tuscan Grille. Weekend dinner-and-a-movie dates at CinéBistro similarly fill the house, as do holiday events.
The Children's Place, a popular kid's clothing shop, closed so recently that mall management has yet to hang the customary decorative paper in the windows to mask its vacancy.
"We hadn't heard Children's Place was closing," Vaughan says. "Now they don't have my go-to kids' store."
Of the first 50 shops trumpeted by the mall's owners, the Taubman Co., in a November 2002 press release, about half have left the mall, including White House/Black Market, Hollister, Smith & Hawken, Johnston & Murphy and Betsey Johnson. Others have taken their place.
"Our retail is always a kind of an ebb and flow, but merchant turnover happens, and it allows us to bring in the stores that are the right mix," says Steve Bonniville, Stony Point's general manager since January, who'd previously served as facilities director.
He points to the nine new shops that have opened between 2010 and 2012, including Tiffany & Co., Pandora and Vineyard Vines. "Our priorities are the same as they've always been, which is to position Stony Point as the premier shopping environment in the Richmond area. We have a lot of amenities to offer our shoppers."
Vintage Jewelers occupies a space not far from the kids' fountain, a space that had been vacant for about a year when owner Mike Ali decided to move his shop here from a smaller space elsewhere in the mall. His store has been at the mall for seven years.
"There were so many tenants before that," says Ali, recounting a succession of short-lived ventures that previously occupied his current digs. He says he's pleased with the move: More space for displays and relatively good foot traffic through this end of the mall thanks in no small part to the fountain.
"It's a little slow right now," he says, sitting back in a low chair behind the back counter of his shop. He credits Bonniville for the work he's done in just the past few months. GNC is soon to open, and Ali says he feels the marketing message has been better communicated to the public. "With the new management, he's more aggressive, so we're hoping that brings in more people."
Ali says he loves Stony Point. Its atmosphere, its architecture, and its variety of specialty shops and high-end national anchors make it unique in Richmond. "I just feel we're lacking traffic," he says, frowning.
The 650,000-square-foot Stony Point Fashion Park opened on Sept. 18, 2003, as a needle-sharp mist fell. Hurricane Isabel wreaked havoc in subsequent days — and nothing was stopping Stony Point's owners, the Michigan-based Taubman Co., making its big splash. Opening-day shoppers braved the weather not only to shop, but also to try out the bocce courts outside Brio Tuscan Grille and to experience the novelty of walking their dogs into never-before-in-Richmond shops like Anthropologie, Louis Vuitton, Restoration Hardware, Sur La Table and Saks Fifth Avenue.
The opening was the culmination of more than seven years' effort by city and Taubman officials to gain a foothold in the Richmond retail market that started in 1995 with Taubman's announcement that it planned a mega-mall at Stony Point, backed by a $33 million subsidy from Richmond officials.
By 1998, though, Taubman had all but backed out of whatever deal it had with the city, making a decision to purchase nearby Regency Mall, a fading retail flower built in 1975, and to scale back its Stony Point plans.
Regency, located just a few miles beyond the city limits in Henrico County, needed work but seemed like a good bet based on its history. However, Taubman misjudged Henrico County officials' willingness to play along the way city officials had; then-County Manager Virgil Hazelett and other county officials had no interest in chipping in to defray redevelopment costs for a mall that already was built.
Taubman eventually came back to the city, accepting an enticement package of about $15 million. But by now, it faced stiff competition with the emerging Short Pump Town Center, a 1.1 million-square-foot outdoor mall proposal in Henrico's Far West End.
The Stony Point deal, an ordinance adopted by City Council in October 2001, required Taubman to deliver a "retail top-tier shopping center on the south side of Chippenham Parkway at Stony Point Parkway." The total project, according to a letter to council sent by Taubman's lawyer, would represent a $100 million investment on Taubman's part. Though Taubman built its own parking lot, the agreement called for the city then to purchase the lot back for nearly $1 million. The city also promised the land on which the malls sits and $13.5 million if Taubman signed on three anchor stores — Saks, Dillard's and Gaylan's (now Dick's) Sporting Goods.
So was it all worth it? Henrico's Short Pump Town Center deal, where taxpayer-backed bonds paid for $22 million in enhancements to that site, including a ring road and parking lot, were paid off roughly five years later using sales and other tax money that otherwise would have gone back into the county's coffers to pay off those bonds.
There was no payback even contemplated for Stony Point with either the initial $30-plus million or with the scaled down payout of about $15 million. But according to a report issued by the city's Department of Finance the year after Stony Point opened, the mall already was well on its way to proving itself. More than $600,000 in real estate taxes and about $2.8 million in combined sales and meals taxes collected, not to mention utilities payments and other personal property taxes, meant somewhere close to $4.2 million in tax benefit to the city.
In 2008, city officials told The Times-Dispatch that it had recouped its investment. Indeed, in many ways, says Thad Williamson, an associate professor of Leadership Studies and Philosophy, Politics, Economics and Law at University of Richmond's Jepson School, Stony Point has been singularly successful, especially in attracting retail back into the city. Where prior to 2003, Richmond was a retail desert — Carytown along with Libbie and Grove were among its few remaining retail hubs — it now boasts a Target on nearby Forest Hill Avenue. And signs are good that major retail investment may soon come to the Boulevard.
"It's kind of ironic because it's a sort of an unusual case where you have county residents shopping in the city," he says, noting that Stony Point draws a significant portion of its base from nearby Chesterfield, in part because it feels like it may still be in the county rather than inside city limits. Still, Williamson says, the Stony Point deal with the city was not successful in some notable ways. "It always worries me that when you're giving money without any strings attached...," he says.
Nico Schultz is development director at Taubman's headquarters in Michigan. He says the company remains very positive about its flagship investment in the Richmond region. "There was a competitive landscape, yeah — and there almost always is," Schultz says. "There's room enough for both Short Pump and Stony Point in enjoying a very strong performance."
Mike Ali at Vintage Jewelers hopes so.
"I feel like this mall has potential — it really does," Ali says. "People have this conception that, you know, this is a high-end mall — that this isn't a mall for me. They hear Louis Vuitton and Saks. But this mall has a lot of boutiques and independents. There are reasonable stores here."
Meanwhile, at Saks Fifth Avenue, ostensibly the mall's most prestigious anchor tenant, the business model long has assumed lower traffic counts than Stony Point's cross-town rival, at least as Jeff Gehrlich, general manager for the past six years, sees it. "I think this mall is not positioned as a large regional mall such as Short Pump — this is about half the size," Gehrlich says. "It's positioned to draw people who are really serious about shopping or eating."
Stony Point may well be a bellwether rather than a canary in the coal mine when it comes to tenant turnover. "We're seeing a shift where malls used to be very focused on retailers and now things are changing in what the focus is" says Teresa Burgin Krueger with ShopperTrak, a Chicago-based retail analysis and accounting firm. "There might be a higher concentration of food and beverage." This certainly is the case at Stony Point, where Ali and Gehrlich both talk about a flood of customers who arrive at lunch and at dinner to patronize restaurants. "The use of ‘the mall' is changing," Krueger says, pointing to malls in Chicago where plastic surgeons have leased space for surgery centers and to national trends toward other service or medical-related industries using mall space. "I think what it's speaking to is [that] malls are different," she says. "It's not you go to the mall and you search for your black dress and go home. We have a lot of malls that are mixed use."