So this is what $751,000 buys these days in Memphis: a big house or the Raleigh Springs Mall.
Even in a real estate crisis, some numbers jump out at you. At that price, you might think the mall on Austin Peay Highway is closed or bulldozed, like the old Mall of Memphis.
But the doors of the main entrance were open at 8 a.m. this week, and the woman mopping the floor said walkers can come in at 9 a.m. and shoppers at 10 a.m. There are about 30 tenants listed on the building directory, including fast-food restaurants, sporting-goods stores, jewelers, and a Malco 12-screen theater with five screens currently in use. A Sears that was not part of the sale remains open. But Dillard's and JC Penney are gone, their signs stripped off the anchor stores, leaving only the shadow of their names. An expressway-style flyover provides quick access from Raleigh's main drag to Interstate 40 and newer suburbs.
The mall is a symptom of what ails Memphis. There are vast empty spaces from Raleigh to Hickory Hill to the fairgrounds to Overton Square to the Pyramid looking to hook up with Bass Pro, Target, Trader Joe's, or some other retailer. But planners say there is a simple reason why there's not much action.
"There is way too much retail for this community to support," said Robert Lipscomb, head of the Memphis Division of Housing and Community Development. "There is not enough demand to support all these malls."
Less than a mile from the Raleigh Springs Mall on Austin Peay Highway there is a Kmart store and a Walmart. Lipscomb, along with the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce and neighborhood leaders, tried to get the Walmart to move into the mall, but Walmart could not find a user for its current building, so it is staying put.
Dexter Muller, senior vice president of community development for the chamber, said Memphis malls have been cannibalizing one another for years as the population moves east and south.
"The beginning of the end for Raleigh Springs was when Wolfchase Galleria opened," he said. "The next new mall blows out everything behind it."
Muller and Lipscomb said Raleigh's "fundamentals" are still good. There are more than 100,000 people who live between Frayser and Raleigh. The Raleigh Community Council is one of the strongest neighborhood groups in the city.
"Raleigh is a diverse community with stable incomes and good neighborhoods," Lipscomb said. "We've got to make it work."
The city has hired a planning firm, Looney Ricks Kiss, to help research the market and figure out what to do. Federal stimulus money could play a role. Muller said Southland Mall in Whitehaven has survived the loss of key anchors, but battling decline and attracting new businesses "is like trench warfare." If neighborhood residents don't "buy everything they can within the neighborhood" then retailers fail, he said.
Several remedies already have been tried, including the movie theater, which was lured by an $11 million investment by the mall's previous owner. Lipscomb notes that multiplex theaters have had crowd problems recently that can drive away more business than they attract. The current mall owner, Whichard Real Estate based in North Carolina, has not announced its plans. A Memphian who is familiar with the company from when it owned Southland Mall calls them "speculators."
"I don't know what the best prospects are," Lipscomb said. "Probably some kind of retail unique to the area. That's one reason to bring in the outside expertise."
Kevin Brooks, president of the neighborhood council, has lived in Raleigh since 1997. He and his wife raised three children there. He hopes the new owners, whom he has not yet met, can attract an anchor tenant. The mall is "beautiful on the inside" despite little patronage.
"Something like a Target store would conform with the status of Raleigh," he said. "We don't have a whole lot of low-income areas, and we don't have many high-income residents. We are pretty much a good representation of Memphis in the middle class. We do have the perception of being a violent area, but if you look at police reports, they actually pulled police out of our area and sent them to other areas. I hate to see the news pointing fingers at Raleigh."