This fall, a space that once housed a jewelry store on the Janesville Mall’s north end will become a vintage video game arcade, replete with Pac-Man and Super Mario Brothers murals on the walls.
What is this? 1984?
New retailers Matthew and Tesha Clark know they can’t bring back the 1980s, when shopping centers such as the mall were meccas of spending and centers of social life. But the Clarks seek to bring back the spirit of 1980s mall culture.
It’s a feeling Matthew Clark, 45, said he remembers from growing up as a “mall rat” in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
In early September, Clark plans to open The Drop Zone Arcade, which he said will blend vintage 1980s and ’90s arcade favorites with new arcade video games. He’s painting a “history of video games” mural on the walls.
He and his wife are part of a new breed of entrepreneurs who are trying alternative uses for retail shop spaces that have sat vacant over the last few years at the 1 million-square-foot mall.
In March, the Clarks—who are movie set, makeup and special effects designers and filmmakers by trade—brought Extreme Graphics to the mall. The small shop has a Jersey shore beach shop feel with airbrushed shirts, jackets and other items that Matthew designs by hand.
Tesha runs Spotlight Photography, a gallery and photography business that recently located in another vacant space.
Also coming, mall Manager Julie Cubbage says: a future children’s museum that will be located in a former children’s clothing store.
And this fall, the Hedberg Public Library is opening a small branch library, HPL Express, which Cubbage believes will cater to young families with children.
Cubbage said another entrepreneur wants to open an “escape room,” a business that immerses customers in themed, live-action whodunits and other role-playing experiences.
Such alternative uses are calculated to appeal to teens, young adults and young families—demographic groups that recently have had a strained relationship with brick-and-mortar shopping centers.
The secret to getting shopping malls to reinvent themselves—and fill vacancies—is to find new tenants with fresh ideas that provide products and family-friendly “experiences” that consumers can’t get online, mall entrepreneurs say.
“As a kid from the ’80s, I remember what the mall was to families. It was the place to be, and the kids didn’t say, ‘I don’t want to be with my parents.’ It was the family thing,” Clark said. “Everybody was happy to be together and go out and eat at Pizza Hut or something. Then go to the mall.
“We’ll bring that feeling back if we can, which we think we can. It just takes the mindset of offering people something that Amazon can’t give them. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
The mall also is in the running to be the location of Janesville’s planned ice arena and sports complex. A decision on that front could come this fall, Cubbage said.
She said the mall’s owner, Rockstep Capital, has been shuffling around prospects to fill the biggest vacant spaces with the idea that the mall is on the short list of sites for the sports complex.
Recently, Cubbage said, the mall has used large-scale vacant retail space—such as the 80,000-square-foot former Sears—to host public events. This month, the mall hosted a back-to-school expo there that included kids’ events, giveaways and a youth fashion show.
It’s an overt move to redefine the mall’s role and focus—and answer that age-old platitude often heard in the echo chambers of social media in communities big and small: “This town needs something for the kids to do.”
Last week, teens were peering through the bars at The Drop Zone. One stopped in Tesha Clark’s photography shop to ask for the third time in as many days when the Clarks’ arcade will open.
Clark understands the fascination. He’s got five children.
“When we opened these businesses here, and we noticed right away all the teenagers just sitting around on these chairs getting in trouble, you know, mall security running them off, and they had nowhere to go,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘You know, we just have to give them something to do.’ You know what I mean? So then you’ve got kids hanging out here all the time.”
He’s not the only one who’s seeing this.
Lawrence Meyer, who manages Zumiez, a retailer of trendy skateboarding apparel, watched as two teenage boys whizzed through his store on shiny aluminum scooters. The boys wheeled out of the store and scooted up the mall’s concourse, their heads on a swivel for signs of mall security officers.
Meyer sported a tattoo on his collarbone and had a laid-back, mid-1990s California skate punk aura. He chuckled at the teens.
“We call that the ‘counterculture of the mainstream,’ man,” he said. “It’s that kind of thing that used to make malls everywhere tick. And I’m telling you, it’s coming back. The ‘mall rat’ is coming back.”