Gadsden Mall evolves to serve community

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Spinoso Real Estate Group Director of Leasing Chris Fiello stands outside Tre Ragazzi’s new location, set to open soon, at the Gadsden Mall.

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

The Gadsden Mall opened its doors on July 31, 1974, welcoming locals to experience the first shopping center housing a plethora of business under one roof in Etowah County. Almost 50 years later, Gadsden’s mall is writing a new chapter in its legacy, modernizing and evolving to serve its community.

Exciting announcements are on the horizon for the Gadsden Mall. Following the last recession and the COVID-19 pandemic, the deterioration of traditional retail and shopping habits accelerated, resulting in shopping centers nationwide struggling. After weathering these storms, the Gadsden Mall is adopting a different approach, inviting nontraditional tenants – rooted in the local community – to create a captivating and attractive entertainment destination for visitors.

Designed to redevelop and reimagine shopping centers, Spinoso Real Estate Group specializes in enclosed shopping malls spanning across the country, from New Hampshire to California. Founded in 2009 by enclosed mall industry professional Carmen Spinoso, who recognized experienced mall platform services would prove beneficial to banks, special servicers and investors following a shift in the industry, Spinoso’s culture is rooted in creating value for its clients in a prompt and effective manner.

Developing a vision, setting goals and executing plans culminate Spinoso’s values, which emerge as “conducting business with integrity, executing with excellence and operating with humility.” The real estate group’s core strength resides with leasing enclosed shopping malls and large-scale retail-based properties like Gadsden’s mall, which is owned by California-established Farallon Capital Management. About three years ago, Farallon Capital partnered with Spinoso to adopt the Gadsden Mall as a client and begin the transformative process.

Spinoso understands the crucial aspect leasing plays into the successful evolution of real estate, specifically shopping malls. Through developing a unique and attractive selection of tenants, a mall’s value is enhanced, with its viability and financial performance increasing.

That’s where Spinoso Real Estate Group Director of Leasing Chris Fiello enters the picture. Fiello’s experience in commercial retail development and tenant relationships coincides with Spinoso’s mission to improve the quality of shopping malls for communities nationwide. He noted that understanding the history of the industry allows Spinoso to foresee its future, but listening to the community gives him the knowledge needed to benefit Gadsden’s mall in the present.

“It’s very important to us that this is Gadsden’s mall and the surrounding communities’ mall,” said Fiello. “In order to do that, we’ve got to spend a lot of time here. We’ve got to talk to people, we’ve got to understand this community market – who are the customers coming to the mall today and who are the customers who wouldn’t come today but would if we deliver what they want. That’s one of the first things we do when we take over a project. We come in, assess the situation and understand the market so we can deliver what [the community] wants. We would never tell a community, ‘This is what you need.’ It’s all about listening, beginning to form a plan and delivering on that.”

While Spinoso’s headquarters reside in Syracuse, New York, Fiello noted that maintaining an active relationship with Gadsden is essential to the mall’s growth.

“I love Gadsden,” said Fiello. “I’ve probably been here more than any other mall we have. What I like about it is that it does seem like it’s a very solid community, but what I find extremely impressive is there are so many talented local business owners here. That’s been fun – meeting all these people, getting to know them and developing relationships.”

A handful of those talented local business owners manifest in the Gadsden Mall’s three new tenants – The Alley, Tre Ragazzi’s Italian Café and Martin’s Family Clothing. Fiello shared that he forged relationships with the trio through exploring Gadsden and learning the area. He met The Alley creator and owner Bethanne Mashburn when an upside-down hanging car caught his eye off 100 Thomas Drive in Gadsden, enticing him to discover Mashburn’s first creative venture, The Factory.

Fiello experienced the mission behind The Factory that filters into The Alley, jumping on trampolines and playing virtual reality games, discovering the stress-free and playful atmosphere Mashburn conjures in her entertainment hubs. Born and raised in Etowah County, with fond memories of the Gadsden mall, Mashburn shared Fiello’s transformative vision for such a significant place in her adolescence. When it came time for The Alley’s arrival, her trusting relationship with Fiello and Spinoso Real Estate proved a key factor in Mashburn’s establishment at the mall. Since its opening earlier this year in a portion of the mall’s former Sears building, The Alley’s success continues to flourish.

Fiello stumbled upon Tre Ragazzi’s in a similar fashion, when driving through downtown Gadsden. The family-owned Italian eatery – a beloved local favorite – impressed Fiello, who enjoyed the delicious cuisine and the attentive service. When Fiello learned that owners Kevin and Toni Napper were searching for another location, he suggested the mall for their consideration. The Nappers, who met as Sears coworkers at the Gadsden Mall years ago, found that the mall offered them better visibility, parking and an opportunity to expand into something new. Its location near The Alley is a premium spot and the restaurant has plans of opening soon.

Martin’s Family Clothing owner Bill Wakefield chartered a trial run in the mall’s former JC Penny building, designating a small portion of the store for a pop-up shop during the holidays last year. The temporary shop’s incredible success, paired with the community’s enthusiastic response, prompted Wakefield to join the mall as a permanent tenant, which is now open to the public.

“I think there is a sentimental factor,” said Fiello, describing the reasons why tenants choose to locate in the Gadsden Mall. “I know when I was a kid, a mall I used to work at was torn down [recently] and it’s fun to think back to those memories. These local people [in Gadsden] are invested in their community and they want to do well. They want the community to have want they want – they don’t want to have to travel for dining options or entertainment. There is sentimental value [with the Gadsden Mall] but I think there’s a lot of local pride in Gadsden. [People think] ‘we deserve a nice shopping center; we work hard.’”

Fiello could not disclose a specific upcoming tenant for the remainder of the Sears box, but shared that the community can expect another exciting addition to the Gadsden Mall soon. He noted that all tenants recruited for the mall must generate a positive impact on the mall as a whole, meeting the community’s needs and wants. All boxes within the mall are customized to reflect the tenants, personalizing each space to create unique and memorable experiences.

“This can be a very successful mall,” said Fiello. “It’s a successful mall already, but it can just be next level. We can really anchor it for the long-term…this is going to be the hub of shopping, dining and entertainment. There was another deal on the Sears box (to take the whole box, before we did The Alley) and it wasn’t the right thing to do and we passed on it. It would’ve been wrong for the community and the mall, so we didn’t do it. The results of that decision would limit our opportunity potential for the rest of the mall. You have to look at the mall and ask, if you do that deal there, what is the ripple effect for the rest of the mall? How does that effect the rest of the mall? That’s the process you have to go through – to understand what you are bringing to the table and how it effects everything else.”

The continuity and camaraderie among tenants within the Gadsden Mall create an environment where businesses support one another. Unlike standalone businesses or strip malls, an enclosed mall setting allows tenants to benefit each other and thrive in a prime location. Spinoso’s active presence as landlord, including a full mall team, designs programs that help drive traffic to the mall and change consumer shopping habits to consider the mall’s worth.   

“We’re all on the same side,” said Fiello. “The commercial retail real estate business is what we’re all a part of. We may be on one side, considered the landlord, and they’re on the tenant side, but our goals of being successful are all aligned. We’re doing the same thing – evolving, doing everything we can to make this whole center successful. If a community is used to driving by the mall because they don’t have what they want, it takes a little while to change those habits. The more we can let people know that we’re here, we’re serious and we’re investing [in the mall], people will give it a chance. We’re only scratching the surface on the people we can bring here.”

“The goal is to give people multiple reasons to come [to the mall]. You may come one day to shop, you may come one day on a date for dining and entertainment, you may have a membership at Planet Fitness. We need services, which we’ve got here, entertainment and dining.”

As the universe of true department stores shrinks and traditional retail and shopping habits transform, through Spinoso Real Estate Group and innovative and passionate tenants, the Gadsden Mall adapts to a new era. The Gadsden Mall remains afloat and ventures toward a promising future, as dedicated individuals strive to manifest a bustling hub and frequented destination of entertainment, shopping and dining in the heart of their community.

“It’s going to be evolving,” said Fiello. “We’re always going to work on tenant-mixing. We need the right tenants and [sometimes] you’ve got to change it up. You’re either evolving or dying in this industry. You can’t complete a project and put a bow on it and say ‘done.’ We can put together a tremendous project, which we’re in the process of doing now, but it’s just going to always need attention. The vision is to be an active landlord that’s constantly looking for the next best thing and answering the needs of the community. We’re very proud of the work we’re doing here and we’re happy the community in Gadsden will see those benefits. Stay tuned!”

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