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BUSINESS : Giving a Mall a New Lease on Life

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I came here last year, a week prior to the Jan. 17 earthquake. When I was offered the general manager position, I was somewhat taken aback; it wasn’t what I originally applied for. But I think Mr. Haagen was particularly interested in someone who was rooted in the community. I grew up on Thurman Avenue and Adams (Boulevard); I went to Holy Spirit Elementary School, Audubon Junior High, L.A. High. I think that was a strong reason I was selected, coupled with my law enforcement background.

Security is a focus of (Haagen’s), that people feel safe when they come here. I absolutely agree with that. It’s a general concern of people in the community. I’m very proud to say that when you look at the professional security operation we have here, it’s indicative of what the Haagen company wants to bring to the mall. The people who don’t believe that it’s a safe environment, quite frankly, haven’t been here.

We recognize the community we’re in. We recognize that there’s an element out there that we don’t want in here, and that element is those who involve themselves in gang activity or who dress like gang members. We don’t let them in. We really haven’t had a problem because the word is out: we don’t allow gangbangers in the mall. We have made it very clear that we don’t tolerate that type of activity here.

Even before I came here as manager, I shopped here. There are a couple of stores here that always appealed to me--Farucci men’s clothing store and the Shirt Palace. I try to wear as many items from the mall as I can in public so that when people ask me, “Where’d you get that tie?” or “Where’d you get that shirt?” I can tell them the stores. They say, “In the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza?” and they’re surprised. People need to take the time to stop and see what’s going on here.

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Folks thought it was a rumor that T.J. Maxx was coming to the plaza, but it’s here. Now we have a Magic Johnson/Sony partnership to put in a 12-screen movie theater. National retailers have to take a look at that--large companies are investing their money. Can these companies make it here? Well, look at a store like Wilson’s House of Suede and Leather, which is the top revenue producer in its district. Look at Sears, which is also one of the top-grossing Sears locally, and the Disney Store, which records very high video sales. That says to me that the money is here, that people will spend money in this mall if you bring them what they want.

I go to community meetings weekly--homeowner groups, neighborhood watch groups. The ladies say, “Where’s The Limited? Where’s Limited Express?” and stores like that. Wherever I go, questions like that come up. People say, “What do you have going at the mall, Joe?” I can’t lease these stores, but I can be the mouthpiece to our leasing department. I let them know what I hear, what people want. I know that there have been efforts to get stores like The Limited in the past, efforts that haven’t been successful.

But frankly, you don’t see a lot of expansion in retail right now. That’s part of the problem. And unfortunately, this community has been through a lot, that part of the city that’s considered South-Central. But when you look at the floods that we’ve had, the unrest, the fires--people think all these things occur in L.A., right here. When you’re living in other parts of the country (and deciding whether to locate in the mall), you really don’t know what’s here. Those decision makers should actually take a ride around here. There are beautiful homes in the West Adams district, in View Park and Windsor Hills, and Baldwin Hills. People are just amazed. When (Operation Hope Director) John Bryant did his banker’s bus tour, he said people’s mouths dropped, they couldn’t believe how nice the community was. Those are the types of things that need to happen with our national retailers. Those who make decisions really need to come and look.

When you look at this community and what it’s doing, you realize it’s a pilot for the rest of the country. People are looking very closely at what’s going to occur at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw mall. For example, the movie theaters; there are other locations slated throughout the country for the same type of thing.

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But beyond people changing their habits and making this mall their first choice, something else has to occur: developing the area around the mall. We could put every store we wanted in the plaza, but it’s like putting a million-dollar home in a depressed area: it isn’t a million-dollar home, it’s a $200,000 home. People don’t want to see boarded-up businesses, stores with stuff hanging out on the sidewalk; we have to bring a professional environment to the whole community.

I envision the day that this is a place where the entire family can come and spend the day and have fun, shop at the stores they want, eat, see a movie. That’s what it should be, and that’s what we deserve. And I think it’s occurring right now.


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