The Rotterdam Square mall is getting an aquarium.
Not only does that sound really cool. But it’s also part of a growing and successful trend of reinventing the standard suburban shopping mall in the wake of competition from online retailers and big-box stores.
Shopping malls have been in steady decline. According to a January New York Times article, more than two dozen malls have shut down in the last four years and about 60 are on the brink of closing. Some say that as many as half of the nation’s 1,200 shopping malls would fail within the next 15 to 20 years.
The once prosperous mall in Rotterdam is a prime example of that decline, with the buildings falling into poor condition and vacancy rates skyrocketing. The big blow was the announcement in January that Macy’s was pulling out. At the time of that announcement, the mall had 16 vacant stores, and three smaller retailers had announced plans to leave.
While many malls have continued to plug along with the old, failing model, as Rotterdam was doing, many others have been adapting to consumers’ changing shopping habits by offering people a destination experience they can't get at a big retailer or from shopping online.
For the shopping mall industry, this is the dawning of the age of aquariums. More and more mall developers are turning to marine life habitats and other amenities to bring shoppers back to the burbs.
For instance, the new 35,000-square-foot Sea Life Michigan aquarium, which opened in January, has helped rejuvenate the aging Great Lakes Crossing Outlets mall in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Britain-based Merlin Entertainments, which operates the Sea Life aquarium brand, also has successfully opened aquariums at shopping centers in North Carolina, Texas, Arizona and at the Mall of America in Minnesota, the epicenter of the destination-shopping center movement.
Rotterdam’s 25,000-square-foot aquarium has the potential to join the others in creating a new unique shopping experience for local residents, as well as serve as another reason for people to visit the area. While the new casino in downtown Schenectady is seen as a destination, one can envision someone saying, “While we're at the aquarium, let’s visit the casino.”
And for that reason, residents should be wildly enthusiastic about the new plan for the mall, revealed Wednesday by the mall’s new owners, Via Properties. In addition to the aquarium, Via is planning other family destination amenities at the mall, including a bowling alley, sports bar, arcade and restaurant.
Of course, any business plan has risks. Instead of a rising tide lifting the mall’s boats, the Rotterdam aquarium could end up a financial sharknado. While many malls are reinventing themselves with such attractions, one approach that works in one area of the country might not necessarily work in another. And the economy, despite showing improvement, is still not leaving families with much disposable income. How much of their available money will they be willing to spend to look at fish in a mall in Rotterdam?
Like the casino, the aquarium and family fun center add yet another item to the growing list of local entertainment options and another unique activity for the region to market to outsiders. For Rotterdam itself, this could be the impetus for more investment in and around the mall, and therefore more customer traffic, employment and sales tax revenue for the community.
For these reasons, we hope and expect this new plan to make a big splash.