Recently, I have been thinking about shopping malls. You might have caught on to this if you read my last two articles for this column. I think this interest began when I visited a couple of upscale malls in southern California; if you have seen these malls, walked around in them and realized that there isn’t really one single thing you can afford to buy, you might have begun to think that everyone in southern California lives better than we do here in the Central Valley.
There is a Coach store at Vintage Faire in Modesto, and a place called Luxe Bijoux at Fashion Fair in Fresno, but I suspect that shoppers from Los Angeles would look upon our malls with scorn. In fact, I know that some do, since I once made the mistake of talking to my UC Merced students, many of them SoCal natives, about entertainment opportunities in Merced. Their opinion was that Merced was a vast wasteland.
“There’s not even any shopping here,” one young woman complained.
“Yes there is,” I answered. “We have a mall.”
This point was received with stunned silence from the entire class. In my defense, our conversation occurred before my progeny had gone off to live on the other side of the Grapevine, opening up for me the entire southern half of California, a place I had only been to a handful of times prior to 2015. (Until I got to know the southern half of California, I loathed it. I was raised in the northern half, and anyone who grew up in northern California during the 1960s, when the aqueduct was built, is likely to understand this enmity. Now, though, I’m kind of jealous of SoCal people.)
But Merced is changing, in large part precisely because of the student population at the university. We are just around the corner from better shopping, in any case, a fact I verified recently during a telephone interview with Bill Kenney, founder of The Kenney Company, a real estate development firm.
The Kenney Company began in 1995, about 25 years after Bill Kenney graduated from CSU Fullerton with a degree in economics and business. The first two decades of his career, Kenney worked primarily in southern California retail space development—conceptualizing and helping to create malls at a time when malls were still thriving across the United States. All of these years later, he is still involved in developing malls, and he is a representative for the company which owns the Merced Mall, Codding Enterprises.
Kenney was willing to divulge some details about the proposed mall renovation, though he could not answer many questions regarding specific plans.
“I don’t want to say something is going to happen,” he said, “and then be wrong later.”
But what struck me about Kenney was that he seemed really committed to the notion that Merced could attract some high-end retailers and entertainment venues. He lives in Newport Beach, home to Fashion Island, where shoppers can buy a Louis Vuitton suitcase and a Rolex watch. After splurging on luxury purchases with giddy abandon, customers can sit in a plaza with a central fountain that looks like it belongs at Versailles and ponder the wisdom of maxing out their credit cards. And though Kenney comes from a place of such opulence and wealth, he can still look at Merced, review its future prospects, and arrive at the conclusion that Merced is a good investment, an up-and-coming location ripe for retail.
And while the diversions offered at the renovated Merced Mall probably will not rival the amenities available at Fashion Island, Kenney did say that they might include a theater complex and could very well incorporate outdoor retail space with diagonal parking—think River Park in Fresno. But first, the plans must undergo a lengthy process of review. Currently, the applications for expansion and redevelopment are with the City. Plans are in the analysis stage. This part of the review could take a while, though Kenney was not willing to say exactly how long, since the process of approval depends on environmental reviews.
Until the all of the reviews have been completed, a process of about one year, there can be no schedule for construction. The reviews will include public hearings, which might very well reveal some resistance to expanding the mall. (Those readers who have lived in Merced for a while might remember the resistance to the downtown multiplex theater, built in 2001. Many residents objected to the construction on the grounds that Merced could not support a thirteen-screen theater.)
After reviews are completed, the really hard part begins—attracting retailers willing to take a gamble on Merced. Currently, Merced is a third-tier market, which means exactly what it sounds like. Our town does not seem like a viable place to peddle merchandise from GAP, much less Bloomingdale’s. But it is Kenney’s job to help investors see the potential in Merced, to take a leap. And of course, in order to convince company executives to pony up millions for space at a mall in a town like Merced, Kenney has to believe that he’s right about Merced’s future. He has to be on board. And he is.
“The UCM expansion will have a very significant effect on the marketplace and demographics of Merced,” Kenney stated during the interview. “And there is no competition nearby.”
“Yeah, but we’ll never have anything close to high-end, not even close to what’s in Modesto or Fresno,” I argued.
“I disagree,” he said. “I think, with the changes Merced is going to see over the next few years, high-end retailers will be attracted to a mall in Merced.”
As our conversation wound down, Kenney talked about the demise of shopping malls. His view is that malls aren’t dying because of internet shopping, but because the market for malls was glutted through overdevelopment in the 1980s and ‘90s. People still want to go out to shop, Kenney maintains, and while internet shopping does create a challenge for mall retailers, malls can offer what Amazon cannot—a physical experience. As far as Kenney is concerned, malls are undergoing a period of readjustment and reconceptualization, but they are not going to die.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.