Georgia Square Mall: Charting the Future of Retail in Athens, GA

The Birth of Georgia Square Mall

Georgia Square Mall, a once-thriving shopping center in Athens, Georgia, opened its doors on February 11, 1981. Developed by CBL & Associates, the mall emerged as a modern retail hub, spanning an impressive 850,000 square feet. Its initial anchors, Sears, Belk, JCPenney, and Davidson’s, were major retail players, drawing significant customer traffic from Athens and beyond.

The architectural design of Georgia Square Mall was a testament to the era’s emphasis on aesthetic appeal and shopper comfort. The developers planted 500 trees in the parking lot, creating a green and welcoming environment.

Inside, the two-level mall featured elevators and escalators, ensuring easy navigation for shoppers. This attention to detail in design and infrastructure set Georgia Square Mall apart as a premier shopping destination.

The grand opening was a significant event in Athens, marked by a ribbon-cutting ceremony that included notable figures such as Athens Mayor Lauren Colle, Eugene Schimpf, Charles Lebovitz from CBL Associates, and representatives from the anchor stores. The presence of beauty queens Crystal Lynn Smith and Amy Hettdrecks added glamour to the event.

Although present at the opening, Davidson’s celebrated its grand opening on April 24, 1981. This initial period was marked by optimism and growth, with the mall quickly becoming a central hub for things to do in Athens, Georgia.

In addition to its retail offerings, Georgia Square Mall expanded its entertainment options. Shortly after its opening, General Cinemas launched four cinemas inside the mall, enhancing its appeal as a family-friendly destination.

The expansion continued in 1984 with five larger cinemas outside the mall premises. This move was a strategic effort to diversify the mall’s attractions, catering to shoppers and movie-goers. However, the cinematic journey within the mall was transient.

Carmike Cinemas took over operations in 1996, but the theaters closed in 2001. The external theaters briefly reopened as dollar theaters in 2002 but eventually shut down in December 2015.

The early years of Georgia Square Mall were marked by high occupancy and a bustling atmosphere. In July 1983, the mall reported an occupancy rate of 98.5 percent, a significant increase from 88 percent on its opening day.

This high occupancy rate was partly due to the inclusion of locally owned businesses, which constituted about 11 percent of the mall’s tenants. This blend of national chains and local stores created a diverse shopping experience, contributing to the mall’s initial success.

Georgia Square Mall’s early years were a period of growth and prosperity, reflecting the broader trends in American retail during the 1980s. Its development, anchored by major retail companies and enhanced by entertainment options, positioned it as a key player in the Athens retail scene.

However, as the retail landscape evolved, so too would the fortunes of Georgia Square Mall, leading it into a period of decline and transformation in the following years.

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The Decline of Georgia Square Mall

Decreasing Foot Traffic and Store Closures

The decline of Georgia Square Mall is characterized by decreasing foot traffic and a wave of store closures. The loss of major anchors like JCPenney, Sears, and Macy’s dealt a significant blow to the mall’s traffic, leading to a domino effect on smaller stores.

The reduced customer base made it challenging for these stores to sustain their businesses, resulting in a gradual decline in retail outlets within the mall.

Economic and Retail Shifts

The decline of Georgia Square Mall can also be attributed to broader economic trends and the rise of online shopping. E-commerce significantly altered consumer shopping habits, drawing customers away from traditional brick-and-mortar stores. This shift was compounded by economic challenges and changing consumer preferences, diminishing the mall’s relevance in the retail sector.

Community Impact

The decline of Georgia Square Mall had a noticeable impact on the Athens community. Once a bustling center of commerce and social interaction, the mall’s diminishing appeal led to decreased community engagement and economic activity.

The loss of jobs and reduced retail options affected those directly employed by the mall and the wider community that relied on it as a shopping and social destination.

The transformation of this once-vibrant mall into a quieter, less frequented space reflects the broader challenges similar establishments face across the country.

Anchors and Their Stories

The Evolution of Davidson’s to Macy’s

Davidson’s, an initial anchor, underwent several brand transformations at Georgia Square Mall. It rebranded to Macy’s in 1986, later becoming Rich’s in 1998, then Rich’s-Macy’s in 2003, and reverting to Macy’s in 2005. Despite these efforts to stay relevant, the Macy’s store eventually closed in February 2017.

Sears’ Departure

Sears, another original anchor of Georgia Square Mall, followed a similar fate. Known for its diverse range of products and services, Sears was a vital part of the mall’s retail mix. However, the changing retail environment led to its closure in August 2019.

This closure was part of Sears’ broader strategy to close 26 stores nationwide, signaling the challenges established retail chains face in adapting to new consumer behaviors and market trends.

JCPenney’s Closure

JCPenney, once a cornerstone at Georgia Square Mall, faced a downturn, leading to its closure in October 2020. This event was part of a larger strategy by JCPenney to downsize nationally, reflecting the struggles of traditional department stores in the modern retail landscape.

The departure of JCPenney, a key anchor, marked a significant shift in the mall’s dynamics, impacting foot traffic and the overall appeal of the shopping center.

Belk’s Resilience

In contrast to its fellow anchors, Belk has demonstrated resilience by continuing its operations at Georgia Square Mall. As the sole remaining original anchor, Belk’s endurance amidst the mall’s declining foot traffic and the closure of other major stores is noteworthy.

This resilience highlights Belk’s ability to adapt and maintain a loyal customer base, even as the mall around it has undergone significant changes.

Famous Stores Inside Georgia Square Mall

Fashion and Apparel

In its prime, Georgia Square Mall was home to various fashion and apparel stores that catered to diverse styles and preferences. For U Dress, a store specializing in prom, bridal, and evening gowns, became a go-to destination for formal wear.

Jean Stop offered a range of denim and casual wear, appealing to the younger demographic. Rue21, another popular store, provided trendy clothing options, making it a favorite among fashion-conscious shoppers.

Jewelry and Accessories

The mall also boasted an impressive selection of jewelry and accessory stores. Continental Jewelers stood out for its fine jewelry offerings, attracting customers looking for quality and elegance. Ice God Jewelers was known for its unique designs and custom jewelry services.

Jewel Time offered a range of watches and accessories, catering to those seeking style and functionality in their timepieces.

Entertainment and Leisure

Entertainment and leisure stores played a significant role in the mall’s appeal. Retro Age Games, a store dedicated to video games and related merchandise, became a popular spot for gamers and enthusiasts. Spencer Gifts, known for its quirky and novelty items, provides a unique shopping experience for fun and unusual gifts.

Current State and Tenant Mix

Remaining Stores and Services

As of 2024, Georgia Square Mall hosts a mix of tenants that reflect its evolving character. Among the remaining stores, Belk continues to serve as the primary anchor, offering a range of clothing, accessories, and home goods.

Claire’s provides fashion accessories and jewelry that are popular with a younger audience. Hibbett Sports caters to sports enthusiasts with its selection of athletic wear and sports equipment.

Diverse Offerings

The mall’s tenant mix extends beyond retail to include various services. The Athens Fencing Club offers classes and training, adding a unique recreational option. Smith Dental Care of Athens provides dental services, reflecting the mall’s shift towards including non-retail amenities. These diverse services indicate a change in the mall’s strategy to remain relevant in a changing retail landscape.

Community and Military Presence

Georgia Square Mall also houses several community and military services. The Athens-Clarke Co. Police Substation enhances the sense of security and community engagement within the mall.

The presence of US Air Force, Army, Marine, and Navy recruiters reflects the mall’s role as a community hub, providing opportunities for local youth to explore military careers. These services contribute to the mall’s role as a multifaceted space, catering to a wide range of community needs.

Redevelopment Plans and Future Prospects

2022 Redevelopment Proposal

In early 2022, a transformative proposal was put forward for Georgia Square Mall. This plan, envisioned by an Athens construction syndicate, aimed to repurpose the site into a mixed-use development.

The proposal included the construction of over 1,000 residential apartments and nearly 100,000 square feet of new retail and restaurant space. This ambitious project was designed to revitalize the area, blending living spaces with commercial and recreational facilities.

A New Chapter for Georgia Square Mall: The 2023 Redevelopment Plan

In 2023, Georgia Square Mall embarked on a transformative journey with the Athens-Clarke County Commission’s approval of a $650 million redevelopment plan. This historic decision marked a significant turning point for the mall, grappling with declining foot traffic and store closures.

The redevelopment, covering 70 acres, is poised to be the largest in Athens’ history, symbolizing a rebirth for the area surrounding the once-thriving mall.

This ambitious project required extensive coordination between government and private entities, including a community benefits agreement outlining the amenities to be created in exchange for Tax Allocation District (TAD) funding. The Clarke County Board of Education also played a crucial role, giving the plan an essential vote of approval.

The use of a TAD for this project is a first for Athens-Clarke County, a strategic move inspired by successful redevelopment projects in Atlanta and other major cities.

TADs enable local governments to use future property tax revenue increases to finance redevelopment costs, making it financially feasible to rejuvenate blighted areas. Over the next 30 years, the redeveloped mall is expected to generate $189 million in new property tax, which will be reinvested in community benefits.

The redevelopment team has set an ambitious timeline, planning to demolish two-thirds of the existing mall structure over the next five to six years. Key structures like the Belk store will remain intact.

The areas designated for demolition will give way to 360,000 square feet of commercial real estate, over 1,300 apartments, townhouses, and senior living spaces. A significant portion of these apartments will be reserved as low-income housing.

The Leaven Group has also committed to offering reduced rent for certain commercial spaces to support local community organizations.

This comprehensive redevelopment plan also includes the creation of walking and biking trails, 19 acres of green space, improvements to the stormwater drainage system, and a new bus station on Atlanta Highway. These enhancements are expected to significantly improve the quality of life in the area, making it a more attractive and livable community.

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