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Wolf in the Fold

April 2004

By W. Matt Meyer

When the Mall of Memphis closed on Christmas Eve, Memphian Michelle Coffman was sad for only one reason.

But it wasn’t because the shops in the mall were shuttering. The mall’s two anchors had already packed up more than two years ago. And the other stores didn’t offer anything Coffman could not get at her new favorite mall, the Wolfchase Galleria. Since its opening in 1997, Wolfchase has become the retail area of Shelby County, forcing store closures at several malls and drawing key retailers together to become a true shopping “power center.”

No, Coffman lamented the Mall of Memphis’ closure because it spelled the demise of Memphis’ only public skating rink.

“The rink was the only thing that kept the mall open as long as it did,” Coffman says on a recent Saturday, in between mouthfuls of Chinese food in the expansive Wolfchase food court. “The loss of the rink was a bigger loss than the mall itself.”

No one’s crying for the former king of all Memphis malls. In fact, since the closing, Memphis government and business officials have heard numerous comments echoing Coffman—that the skating rink was the main draw at the mall, says Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce staffer Larry Henson.

“Many groups used it for events and lessons,” says Henson, vice president for research at the Chamber. “It’s caused a real problem, and there have already been discussions in city government circles on if a new rink should be built.”

But the power of Wolfchase extends beyond the closure of a skating rink. In the wake of its opening in 1997 and its continued success, anchors at other malls began to peel off. The Mall of Memphis lost JC Penney and Dillard’s in Decem- ber 2001. At Raleigh Springs Mall north of Memphis, Dillard’s, Gold- smith’s and JC Penney’s closed in early 2003. All three stores are anchors at Wolfchase.

Wolfchase is successful for several reasons, says marketing manager Naja Dollar.

“The sheer size of the mall, 1.2 million square feet, is a big factor,” Dollar says. The mall—which is 98% leased and attracts 10 million shoppers a year—is owned by shopping mall conglomerate Simon Property Group. Indianapolis-based Simon purchased the mall in May 2002.

Also, the mall’s location is prime. Situated on 162 acres of land, the mall is bordered by three major arteries—Interstate 40, Germantown Parkway and U.S. 64—smack dab in the middle of a high-income, high-residential growth area straddling the borders of Bartlett and Memphis.

“All the demographics of the area are off the charts,” says Henson, who helped the mall’s developers and initial owners JMB Property of Chicago gather marketing data as the mall was built and shopped to retailers.

It doesn’t hurt, Henson says, that new home construction, high family incomes and high population density are within a short distance of Wolfchase.

The mall has thrived because it has also “drawn together the big box stores and other outlets needed to create a true retail power center,” Henson says. Home Depot, Lowe’s, Wal-Mart and Sam’s are nearby. Rows of car lots line the streets near the mall.

Restaurants clog the area, too. The first Chili’s near the mall was so popular, a second one opened late last year less than a mile from Wolfchase.

“They must be making a killing to build another one right down the street,” Henson says. “I’d love to have just one night’s take from that place.”

As other suburbs around Memphis grow, Wolfchase will face its first serious competition. Developers in Collierville are planning a regional open-air mall, Carriage Crossing. Its initial 810,830 square feet—a $100 million project set to open later this year—could create the same retail energy as Wolfchase.

Also, in DeSoto County in Mississippi— the fastest growing county in Memphis’ metropolitan statistical area—there are proposals being floated for a large regional mall. With the lower sales taxes in Mississippi, that could pose a serious threat and drain off some of Wolfchase’s traffic, Henson says.

But, for now, Wolfchase reigns supreme. Coffman’s comments indicate as much, as she looks across the food court at the full-size carousel and the packed Malco movie theater. “Wolfchase has everything I need,” she says. “There’s nothing I could get at any other mall that I can’t get here.”