ROTTERDAM — Tax season is a busy time in some corners of ViaPort Rotterdam mall.
About 70,000 square feet of the former Macy’s department store was converted into a state Department of Taxation and Finance call center last year, with 400 employees on-site and room for 300 more, as needed, during times of high demand.
They’re starting to be needed now; it’s tax season. As of Monday, 489 employees were working in the Consolidated Contact Center, a state spokesman reported.
The employees get two breaks a day, and many are using those breaks to go for a walk in the corridors, mall spokesman Alan Fanitzi said.
Foot traffic is greatly increased, though the greatest benefit has been to the mall’s food retailers, he said.
“You see a packed food court, and you look a little more closely, you don’t see a lot of [shopping] bags,” Fanitzi said.
Via Properties, of Turkey, bought the faded Rotterdam Square mall in 2015 and set about revitalizing it.
Visible progress has been made, but there is still work to do; renovations and repairs are underway in a number of spaces and appear to still be needed in others. There are still some vacant storefronts.
Fanitzi said the occupancy rate is up to about 80 percent (not counting the former Sears space and the remainder of the former Macy’s space). The next new tenant will be a SEFCU branch.
But as much as it seeks retail tenants, the mall is trying to build itself as an entertainment destination, with attractions such as Via Aquarium and Via Entertainment, and special events such as speed dating.
“We really want to see how these kind of events do,” Fanitzi said.
Three merchants said Tuesday they’re seeing a lot of traffic at the mall, and the two who’ve been there a while say it’s a definite increase.
Mustafa and Bahar Turunc were baking sweets and brewing hot drinks at Chipmunk Coffee and Tea as the lunch hour neared.
The couple moved to America from their native Turkey a year and a half ago to seize an entrepreneurial opportunity. They knew Via Properties had two malls in the United States (it has since sold its Florida mall) and hoped the U.S. sites would be as successful as Via’s holdings in Turkey.
“It should be a success for us, too,” Mustafa said.
“Since we moved here, the aquarium came, the state employees are here,” Bahar said.
She said she’s enjoying the work because she gets to meet a lot of people as regular customers.
“I think it’s the best part of our job here — they visit us for us,” Bahar said. “We don’t have any family here.”
They’re offering a taste of Turkey in their little cafe. Along with American coffee and snacks are thick Turkish coffee, tabbouleh salad and salep, the creamy orchid-based beverage served warm in winter in Turkey.
The Turuncs’ only child, Mert, 2, is just old enough to enjoy the mall too, especially the aquarium.
“My son loves the mermaid show,” Bahar said.
One of the newest mall merchants is Mary Smith, proprietor of A Bunch A Brunch in the food court, which serves breakfast and light comfort food all day. It’s her first business venture.
“We just started in January,” she said. “I love it.”
“What gave me the idea was when I heard Taxation and Finance was coming here,” Smith said. “We have a lot of regular customers — mostly the people who work in the mall.”
Diagonally across the fountain from Chipmunk Coffee and Tea sits Jewels of Rotterdam, a 23-year tenant of the mall.
Employee Mike Brown said he’s seen a lot of positive changes in recent years.
“Definitely a lot more traffic,” he said. “The upkeep of the mall looks good.”
Much of the jewelry shop’s business is from repeat customers, so it hasn’t benefited hugely from the influx of state workers, but their presence is noticed and appreciated, Brown said.
The mall’s problem now, he said, is that it lacks a major upscale anchor store to draw shoppers. The turnaround efforts of mall management are commendable but face a hurdle without such an anchor, Brown said: “These guys took over, and the other guys already did the damage.”
Fanitzi said the mall wants the right anchor for the space vacated by Sears in 2016.
“We do preferably want a grocer in there,” he said. “We want something that would actually lead traffic into the mall, as well.”
A grocer, he said, would have a built-in customer base in the state workers.
It also would continue Viaport Rotterdam’s evolution away from the traditional mall retail mix.
Viaport Rotterdam has the state call center, the aquarium and the entertainment venue. Management has been experimenting with ways to build on those offerings, from the conventional boat and RV show underway now to the unlimited passes for sale at Via Entertainment.
Via Aquarium, a unique feature among area malls, plays prominently in this strategy, with events such as Valentine’s Day Dinner among the fish tanks. (Yes, seafood is on the menu. No, it’s not any of the species on display.)
The aquarium is also selling stingray food, for visitors who want a closer look by feeding one of the creatures.
“That just brings another level of interaction,” Fanitzi said.