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New Look Is in Store for Mall

Oxnard Factory Outlet hopes a face-lift and change in focus will reverse its decline.

May 26, 2003|Sandra Murillo | Times Staff Writer

A few miles from its bustling one-time retail rival in Camarillo sits the ghostly Oxnard Factory Outlet.

Nearly a decade after it opened amid much fanfare and promise, Ventura County's first factory outlet mall appears to be on its last legs. Roughly half its 37 retail spaces are empty; others scrape to get by.

Last year the mall, which was recently put up for sale, generated a meager $109,000 in sales tax revenue for the city, compared with Camarillo Premium Outlets, which poured $1.7 million into local coffers.

Nora Walsh, manager of Pollero Clothes for Women, said sales have plunged by 50% in the three years since the store moved into the Oxnard center, just south of the Ventura Freeway.

Walsh said she anxiously watches as store after store packs up and leaves. To lure new customers, she and her staff have assembled mailing lists, offered coupons, staged parking-lot sales and even had prize drawings.

Nothing works.

"This mall is a disaster," Walsh said. "Everybody says it looks like a cemetery. There are no cars, no people walking, nothing."

But mall managers promise help is on the way. They have developed a rescue plan aimed at cashing in on the housing boom in north Oxnard, where thousands of new homes have sprouted in recent years.

First, they want to drop the outlet theme and rename the shopping complex the Oxnard Home and Lifestyle Center. New signage will go up next month.

And the mall -- whose main aesthetic feature is a country-style water tower and signage that resembles old crate labels -- will undergo a face-lift, including a new paint job and landscaping.

The mall has hired a new leasing agent and expects to open a furniture store and a women's clothing and accessories shop next month. A 60,000-square-foot Gold's Gym is also slated to open directly in front of the mall next year, mall manager Danuta Burke said.

City officials said the make-over will help revitalize the shopping center.

"It's just a matter of sprucing it up, to make it more attractive and give it more life," said Councilman John Zaragoza.

Existing tenants said they look forward to the changes.

"It's just a matter of getting some businesses in here to try to take a chance," said Rocky Valdez, manager of Sit'n Sleep, the mall's only big-name tenant and one with a solid customer base. "But if there's a vacant parking lot and I'm a big company, I don't want to see that."

Desperate for jobs and sales tax dollars, Oxnard and Camarillo competed in the early 1990s to build the county's first outlet mall, generally occupied by brand-name clothing makers selling at discount.

Oxnard won, with the Factory Outlet opening in the summer of 1994 with more than three dozen stores, including Geoffrey Beene, the Gap and Bugle Boy.

But its success was short-lived. Camarillo Premium Outlets opened in February 1995 and, driven by a more experienced developer, aggressively sought out more high-end stores, such as Barneys New York, Off 5th (Saks Fifth Avenue), Ann Taylor and others. The center now has 120 stores and even attracts tourists.

"The Camarillo group just did a terrific job of designing their center and nailing down leases," said Steve Kinney, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Oxnard. "Once that relative position was established ... Oxnard just kept on trying to play catch-up."

That's something that even the mall's owners don't dispute.

"It became very difficult when Camarillo [Premium Outlets] went to their second phase and we never gained a critical mass of tenants," said James Tepper, senior operating manager for Missouri-based Fru-Con Development.

Despite plans to spruce up the shopping center, questions remain about its viability. Without a big-name tenant, will the new Home and Lifestyle Center be able to keep pace with the thriving retail corridor along Rose Avenue, which includes Best Buy, and the nearby Esplanade shopping center that boasts several brand-name stores?

That depends on how successful managers are at cultivating the shopping center's new theme, said Elizabeth Callahan, vice president of the EDC.

"If you can actually go there as a destination for all home and living things, then you do have a shot without a brand," Callahan said.

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