When the new owners of the Elgin Mall purchased the property in fall 2016, the challenge was clear: how can the retail complex rebound after at least a decade of steady decline? Well, brothers Jay and Mory Burstein have started the process by revamping the large space at the west end of the Mall, which once-upon-a-time housed K-Mart and more recently Zellers; now, Giant Tiger and a new Dollarama store will be the tenants. These two businesses should attract a steady flow of customers. With more people in the Mall, more possibilities arise.

Consider the traditional theory of a mall: first, secure a couple of department stores as anchor tenants, and locate those stores at opposite ends of the building. Next, encourage customers to wander indoors between the department stores, hopefully buying things at the smaller shops in-between. (This is the same basic premise as in grocery stores, where managers put milk on one side and bread on the other and trust that everyone will criss-cross the aisles.)

For malls, the traditional theory is evolving, mostly out of necessity. Online retail and big-box developments have put pressure on department stores in malls. Think of Eaton’s and Zellers and Target and Sears. Perhaps more significant, real estate values have been escalating and there is a need for more housing. In urban markets, adding residential density is generally the quickest and surest way to maximize return on investment. The Elgin Mall was once on the edge of St. Thomas, but now neighbourhoods surround the property. It would have been reasonable, really, for a developer to purchase and level the Mall to build houses and apartment buildings. The free parking lot is enormous, and represents a lot of unrealized potential.

Malls in North America are interesting cultural places right now, squeezed in a sense between the hip vibe of a busy downtown and the boring efficiency of a big box-store plaza. Are malls cool or not? Our view is that, in a small city, the rules for a mall are the same as for any other business: if the mall owners care about the community, the community will care about mall.

For this reason, we are excited to see that the new owners are motivatedto make the Elgin Mall a centre of activity again! Of course, there will be an ongoing need to re-imagine the space, focussing on the consumer desire for experiential retail and bright places to gather. New stores and aesthetic upgrades are crucial for sure, but a cultural makeover is required, too.

We want to contribute to the positive momentum at the Mall and offer some ideas for how to make the place a true local destination. Some of our ideas are practical, some are whimsical.

Here is our list of Top Ten Ways to Revitalize Elgin Mall:

1. Keep the Stores Coming!

Obviously, a mall needs great stores to keep shoppers coming back. Giant Tiger and Dollarama are moving into the west end of the mall, but which stores are next?

STEAM City Media ran a Twitter poll recently to ask St. Thomas and Elgin County residents for suggestions, and Winners and Sport Chek were clear favourites! In a city with a population of 40,000, including a lot of young families with kids playing sports, the lack of a true outlet for athletes is glaring. Beyond that, think of the stores that were in the Mall not too long ago, like La Senza … could some of these retailers be drawn back? How about a clothing store for kids, like Gymboree or Justice? What about Old Navy?

How about something totally different? This is a huntin’, fishin’, campin’ kind of community, right? What if the Mall attempted to attract an experiential retailer like Bass Pro Shops? The closest stores are in Vaughan, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and across the border in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Half of southwestern Ontario would make the drive down to St. Thomas …

2. Update the Food Court Atmosphere

Have you ever wondered how all those little restaurants end up in mall food courts? Well, take a look at MTY Group, the Quebec-based, TSX-listed company that owns such brands as Cultures, Extreme Pita, Manchu Wok, mmmuffins, Mucho Burrito, Thai Express, and countless others. Franchisees sign up, invest, and flock to fill spots in malls with busy, attractive food courts. The company is a Canadian success story.

Perhaps the Elgin Mall could go in a slightly different direction. Consider this path:

Step One: why not cultivate a food truck vibe in a mall food court setting? Put the emphasis on local chefs and encourage innovation. Let one micro-stall be available on a rotating basis, challenge entrepreneurs to build an audience, and start marketing the food court as a local destination! Maybe a homemade pizza joint would work, or some vegetarian fare. We could include a teaching kitchen and let local chefs and guest instructors run classes. Experiment!

Step Two: what if the mall owners blew out the old, uncomfortable seating and transformed the setting into a relaxing space with soft seats, free WiFi, and greenery? String up some lights and add charging stations (powered by solar panels on the roof). Suddenly families would come back, teenagers would hang out, and the community would have a fun gathering spot.

Right now, the Elgin Mall food court feels stuck between bland and something more interesting. Subway is there for a familiar option, yet recent additions like Traditional Fish & Chips and Smitty’s Backyard Burgers are earning some nice buzz, even though neither one is a well-known brand. If we put more attention on local food innovation, could we transform the space into the mall food court of the twenty-first century?

3. Roof-top Garden Patio!

While we dream up ways to attract more visitors to the Elgin Mall, how about a truly fantastical option? After all, boring attracts boring, but try something different and people will show up!

Imagine a staircase from the food court leading up to a roof-top patio! Nothing complex or overly manicured, just some outdoor tables, chairs and flowers, plus a sound system with an ever-evolving playlist to which guests can contribute. The spirit of a place never surfaces without song … and the Elgin Mall has been as spirit-free as a place can get for a long, long time!

Call it the ‘Elgin Mall Bleak Suburbia Make-Things-Better Sunset Patio’ — actually, the sunsets can look surprisingly impressive from the vast open space of the Elgin Mall parking lot, and would be even better from up on the roof! Sun-drenched late afternoons in spring, summer, and fall would pass into cool, chilled-out evenings. Add a little music spilling over the rooftop into the parking lot and onto the sidewalks, and suddenly we have signs of life …

Reinforce the roof if necessary, but let’s make this happen!

4. Revamp the Roadside Signs and Entrances

Signs matter, especially with a retail property set well-back from the road. The current store signs at the entranceways hardly draw the eye, and certainly a new digital sign could help promote the stores – and people – inside the mall. The enter and exit signs are functional but could use updating, too. Perhaps a new logo and colour palette would serve the Mall well.


5. Reinvent the Vacant Restaurant on the Southwest Corner

This former Kelsey’s Restaurant still looks like a burnt-out Kelsey’s ten years after restaurant operator CARA packed up the joint. (In addition to Kelsey’s, CARA Operations Ltd.  owns brands like Swiss Chalet, East Side Mario’s, Milestones, Montana’s, Bier Markt and Harvey’s.) A homegrown set-up called Station Master Restaurant briefly occupied the space, but unfortunately failed to gain traction.

What would work in this space? We put this question out on our Instagram account and received some interesting suggestions, including Red Lobster, Montana’s, Qudoba, and a request for a vegetarian restaurant or an indie beer and wine bar. Another recommendation was for Beertown (check out the location in north London), or for Railway City Brewing to set up at this location with great food, too. All solid recommendations.

A craft brewery would be an interesting fit, and a tasting room would draw people from the neighbourhood as well as suds aficionados from afar. Certainly a restaurant makes sense, if customers would connect this experience with going to a movie at Cineplex in the Mall. (We are slightly concerned that people would insist on parking at the restaurant, and then driving to a parking spot closer to the theatre, just to avoid walking; if so, this may mean that the restaurant is simply too far away from the Mall. Feel free to sigh along with us, for so many reasons … ).

Another option: would this be an ideal location for the new Ontario Cannabis Store?

6. Fix the Parking Lot and Add Some Green Space!

We understand, of course, that realistically the Elgin Mall owners have to focus on the essentials: managing existing relationships, attracting new stores, and improving key infrastructure. Not too far down the list, however, must be a reinvention of the massive on-site parking lot, right? Are there better ways to utilize this space? Could accessibility be improved?

Imagine the parking lot reinvented with new asphalt, curb features, light standards and some green space (Cineplex could screen the occasional movie on the Mall lawn!).

7. Art Zones

Communities gather most frequently and passionately in spaces where the people see a part of themselves reflected. What if a wall or hallway installation could be dedicated to showcasing the work of young local artists? Companies and individuals could support the area in an innovative way: for every piece of artwork purchased, one sponsor could donate the amount of the purchase price to support art programs for kids at the St. Thomas-Elgin Public Art Centre (sponsors could cap the annual total donation, of course). This would brighten up the mall, help encourage young artists, and support the arts in St. Thomas and Elgin County. Art matters!

8. Indoor & Outdoor Recreation Opportunities

How about an indoor and an outdoor ball hockey rink? What about an awesome indoor rock climbing space like at Junction Climbing Centre  in London? Give people fun experiences and reasons to visit the Mall …

9. High-Rise Apartment Buildings

Returning to the parking lot for a moment … with so much space, would it make sense to build an apartment building or two on-site, similar to the high-rise facilities nearby on the south-side of Wellington Street? If a lot or two could be parcelled off and sold, this could be a real revenue-driver for the Elgin Mall. Land use and zoning should not be a problem, given the surroundings. Maybe it would be best to demolish the existing restaurant building, and include a restaurant on the ground floor of a new apartment building on the same site!

Alternatively, would there be a way to construct an apartment complex close to the Mall and connect the two? This would build-in customers for the shops, and residents of the apartments would have easy access to a gym, movie theatre, and grocery store.

10. STEAM Centre / Fanshawe College Student Entrepreneurship Hub

Would the Elgin Mall like to have a never-ending supply of potential tenants? Why not encourage the STEAM Centre and Fanshawe College to partner on a student entrepreneurship hub, complete with equipment to design and prototype new products and experiences?

The Thames Valley District School Board and the STEAM Centre have co-developed a distinctive grade ten program called ‘STEAM School’, which encourages students to come up with ways to make life better for others in the community. This includes coming up with ideas for new start-up businesses! Why not partner with the St. Thomas/Elgin Regional Campus of Fanshawe, which is the only Fanshawe campus that does not offer a business diploma program (seriously, think about that … all post-secondary students interested in business have to leave the community!) Why not make one awesome space that high school and college students can utilize? Fanshawe already has boots on the ground with an Employment Services Centre in the Mall. The STEAM Centre rented space last summer to run camps, which went very well. Let’s put the puzzle pieces together, get creative, and get the mall rocking!

We hope this list sparks some conversations, and provides a few ideas to the new owners of the Elgin Mall. It is awesome to see the place gradually coming back to life!

Top Ten List Developed By Alex Popen, Maddie King and Jenn Klassen with Andrew Gunn