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Mall Blends Into Local Landscape in Its 1st Year : Retail: The Valencia Town Center is bringing about changes for businesses and shoppers. It is also meeting economic expectations.

September 12, 1993|DOUGLAS ALGER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA CLARITA — As the Santa Clarita Valley's only regional shopping center, the Valencia Town Center has changed how local companies do business, residents shop and teen-agers spend their free time during the past year.

Approaching its first birthday on Sept. 24, the 750,000-square-foot center and its 110 stores have become a part of the local landscape. Yet when it was first proposed by the Newhall Land and Farming Co., the mall was met with mixed reactions.

When it opened in 1992, some perceived the center as 25 years overdue. A regional shopping center was indicated in the Newhall Land and Farming Co.'s 1965 master plan of the Valencia community that suggested such a center would be warranted in about five years. Others feared a major shopping center would act as a magnet for crime and be the last straw for mom-and-pop businesses struggling in a poor economy.

The opening of the Valencia Town Center bucked a nationwide trend, according to Keith Fox, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Fox said mall construction nationwide has plummeted about 70% during the past three years; 1,510 new centers opened in 1989 and only 552 opened in 1991. Just 460 shopping centers--from strip malls to regional "power centers"--opened in 1992 across the country.

The New York-based council blames the slowdown not on the economy, but on a lack of construction loans following problems in the savings and loan industry. Shopping centers continue to post large sales figures, although sales increases have slowed from about 5% to about 2% a year.

Santa Clarita officials projected $1 million per year in sales tax revenue from the Valencia Town Center. As with most municipalities, it is the largest source of income for Santa Clarita, and the city expects to collect $12.8 million in sales tax for the 1993-1994 budget year.

During the final three months of 1992--the first full quarter of operation for the Valencia Town Center--the mall generated $320,231 in sales tax revenue, according to Municipal Resource Consultants, which documents sales tax earnings for the city. Santa Clarita took in $161,308 in mall-related sales tax for the first quarter of this year.

"We're pretty much on target for what we were expecting," said Dennis Luppens, administrative assistant for Santa Clarita.

The much stronger sales in the final quarter of 1992 are attributed to heightened interest in the new shopping center and the holiday shopping season. More recent sales tax figures were unavailable.

Small businesses have had to adjust to the presence of the regional shopping center.

"Probably there were some (small) businesses that were weak and closed. Others are competing and doing OK," said Bob Hawkes, executive director of the Santa Clarita Valley Small Business Center.

The small business center was launched two years ago to help local firms already suffering from a sluggish economy prepare for a regional shopping center. Newhall Land contributed $100,000 in seed money for the business center.

With additional funds provided by Santa Clarita and the College of the Canyons, the center offers free consulting services about how to start a business, market research and organizational ideas.

"You have to realize a mall is an attraction in itself. People go to malls just to go to malls," said Hawkes. "People who have survived have realized they have to stress customer services. They have to concentrate on what malls can't necessarily do."

Those behind the shopping center say it has helped some area businesses by pulling in more shoppers from outside the Santa Clarita Valley.

"We did a lot of research (for the shopping center)," said Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land. "What we discovered was when people did their mall shopping down in Northridge, they'd get their gas there, repair their shoes there. . . ."

"I think it has brought a lot of customers to our valley, a source we haven't touched before," said Viki Rudolph, executive vice president of the Santa Clarita Chamber of Commerce. "Generally, the mall has been a shot in the arm economically when other areas are hurting."

Another major fear was that the Valencia Town Center would become part of an extended turf war among Los Angeles-based gangs.

"I have to admit, I was concerned when the mall was first (announced) coming here," said Sgt. Carl Deeley, head of the Santa Clarita Sheriff Station's anti-gang unit. "For the most part, I think it's less of a problem than other areas here."

Deeley said the center has indeed attracted gang members, but on-site public safety officers have done an effective job of monitoring them.

"They've learned that if they want to come back there, they've got to follow the rules," Deeley said.

A few months after the Valencia Town Center opened, some youths complained they were being harassed by public safety officers. The complaints have since died down.

Newhall Land has plans to ultimately expand the Valencia Town Center to 1.4 million square feet and add an additional 100 stores.

"It's entirely dependent on the department stores," Lauffer said. "We hope to have Phase 2 started in five years."

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