A major overhaul helps Lynchburg’s mall adapt to the changing shopping industry

The newest attraction at River Ridge (formerly known as River Ridge Mall) is certainly making a splash.
SeaQuest opened in October 2019 to big crowds, offering brave adults and kids a chance to get up close and personal with snakes, sharks and all kinds of exotic animals.

River Ridge officials expect 12,000 people to visit SeaQuest each month, a much-needed boost for an industry that has seen some tough times.

With the increased popularity of online shopping, it’s no secret that indoor malls have been struggling. In the last two years, Foot Locker, Payless, Forever 21 and Gap have announced hundreds of store closures across the country. Macy’s left Lynchburg and many other malls in 2017.

A 2017 report from the financial services company Credit Suisse predicted 20 to 25 percent of malls would close within five years. The numbers haven’t been that drastic so far, but many malls are looking to reinvent themselves and find new ways to keep people coming through their doors.

“Shopping centers have changed over the years and you have to provide food and entertainment,” said Louise Dudley, General Manager of River Ridge. “It gives the shopper a reason to stay and to make it a great customer experience.”

Retaining shoppers is a big focus of River Ridge’s two-year, multi–million dollar renovation project. For starters, they rebranded themselves and removed the word “mall” from their name. Then, Phase One focused on the center court area. They installed a grand fireplace, big screen TV, mini-amphitheater, and food and beverage bistro just in time for the busy 2019 holiday season.

Plans for 2020 include tearing down the old Sears building and adding big box retailers. They are going to overhaul the food court as well.

The big question is: Who’s coming? River Ridge officials couldn’t answer those questions as this issue went to press in late 2019. What they did say is the look and feel of the inside and outside of the mall is going be something customers are very excited about.

“We’ve got really great architects and contractors working on this project with us that have created a beautiful design that complements the Lynchburg community that we think everyone will really enjoy,” said Katie Farris, Retail Marketing Manager for River Ridge.

Billy Hansen, a local commercial real estate broker and appraiser, says redesigning and reconstructing the mall makes sense for what River Ridge is trying to accomplish.

“I think sometimes you have to tear stuff down to chart a new course. I think that’s the right move,” he said.

Christopher Gentry is the president and founder of Gentry Commercial Real Estate—he’s seen a lot of changes in his 25 years in business. He thinks these changes at River Ridge will make it a destination for people throughout the greater Lynchburg area and beyond.

“I think it will work for our mall,” said Gentry. “It won’t work everywhere,
but here I think it has a very good chance.”

According to Gentry, outdoor malls and open air centers have become more popular in the last 15 years.

Customers can park right outside the store and get what they are looking for quickly. He says at successful indoor malls, shopping must be a secondary activity. Customers need experiences they can’t get on their computer or cell phone—whether it’s seeing a movie on the big screen, working out at a fitness center or feeding a stingray.

“Giving people a reason to come there again, those are things that will definitely have a positive impact,” said Gentry.

Another priority for malls is to make sure when people visit, they want to stay for a while. River Ridge is working on adding WiFi, and their new furniture has charging stations. They want visitors to think of it as a community center.

A successful mall can have a ripple effect across the community. Gentry says bringing more people to River Ridge can help the greater Lynchburg area as a whole. River Ridge customers might visit other parts of town, giving those shops and restaurants a boost.

“You may get some additional growth just because of the additional people that are being drawn here,” said Gentry.

It’s a phrase you hear in real estate a lot: location, location, location. Gentry believes that’s one reason Lynchburg’s mall is set up for success. Besides being close to Liberty University and a large student population, it’s easy to get to. Routes 29, 460 and 501 are all in very close proximity. People who live in communities that have fewer entertainment and shopping options have easy access.

“The redevelopment of River Ridge is going to make us a regional draw,” said Dudley. “Up until this point, it’s been a Central Virginia shopping center.”

But the mall’s local ties are important to its growth. In 2016, Liberty University bought a 75 percent interest in River Ridge, and Dudley says that investment has really paid off.

“Liberty University has reinvested into River Ridge and we’re so excited to be a part of that,” said Dudley.

According to Hansen, having a local entity like Liberty University with an ownership stake might be the main reason why River Ridge is set up to succeed where other malls fail.

“Most malls are owned by large corporate landlords. What’s interesting about our mall is that it has local ownership stake,” he said. “A big corporate landlord’s decision-making is about what’s going to make the most financial sense. When you have a local stakeholder, they have another lens to look at it.

They’re going to walk through that mall. They have a longer-term view and a more close up view.”

Hansen says he got his dream job when he was 15, working at Finish Line in River Ridge Mall.

“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world to work at Finish Line in the mall,” said Hansen. “I thought it was the place to be in 1999.”

Mall officials are hoping that all the work they are putting in will return River Ridge to its former glory, making it the place to be in 2020 and beyond.

By Scott Wilson | Photography by Lindsay Carico