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How Concord Mall is making a comeback

Concord Mall in North Wilmington
Kyle McKinnon, Delaware Public Media
Concord Mall in North Wilmington

When Concord Mall in North Wilmington switched owners in early 2020, the change fueled concern about the future of the mall, which has been a mainstay on Concord Pike since the late 1960s.

But fast forward nearly three years and the mall appears to be experiencing a renaissance, finding the right blend of tenants to keep shoppers coming.

This week, contributor Eileen Dallabrida takes a closer look at what’s working for the mall and what could be next.

Contributor Eileen Dallabrida reports on Concord Mall's revival and what could be next

Less than two years ago, empty storefronts outnumbered active businesses at Concord Mall as the occupancy rate slumped to 40 percent.

Today the North Wilmington landmark has nearly doubled its roster of merchants, boosting its occupancy rate to 80 percent—without the addition of a single nationwide retailer.

Tom Dahlke, the mall’s general manager, says shoppers are unlikely to see the return of The Gap and other marquee merchants. Instead, the mall’s turnaround is rooted in attracting local retailers and nontraditional service providers, such as a catering venue.

“I am never going to compete with Christiana,” he says, referring to the powerhouse regional mall 10 miles to the south. “They have a lock on national retailers, so we had to go a different way.”

In property management circles, Dahlke is known as a fixer. His background is in asset management and security, not retail, and he is taking an unconventional approach in turning around the 960,000-square-foot shopping center.

“I look at it as an asset and I ask myself: what is the best use of that asset?” he says.

At Concord, the assets are significant. The mall is located in affluent North Wilmington on Route 202 in tax-free Delaware, a short hop from Pennsylvania. It’s home to a bustling Boscov’s and Bonefish Grill, a casual dining concept with a faithful following.

Dahlke took the helm at Concord in January 2020 after Allied Properties of Wilmington, the mall’s long-time owner, sold the fading shopping center to Namdar Realty Group, a Long Island, New York, operation that focuses on distressed properties.

Interior of Concord Mall
Kyle McKinnon, Delaware Public Media
Concord Mall interior

Within months, Concord faced two new crises. The struggling Sears anchor closed as its parent company shuttered stores nationwide. Weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic forced closures of non-essential retailers. Shoppers stayed home, ordering goods online.

Dahlke used the downtime to fine-tune a two-pronged strategy. First, retain businesses already located in the mall. Second, entice new retailers and service providers to come on board.

A recent tenant is The Catch@Concord, a 4,300-square-foot events venue that can accommodate meetings and social events ranging from baby showers to birthday parties.

A caterer in a shopping mall?

“I think The Catch will introduce a lot of new people to the mall,” Dahlke says.

He isn’t a traditional manager—his office is located in a large glass cubicle visible to retailers and shoppers—and he likes the idea of bringing unexpected businesses to the mall. He has set his sights on enticing a community theater company to Concord, where patrons would benefit from the mall’s abundant, readily accessible parking. Theater troupes already have taken the stage at malls in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

“It’s my passion project,” he says.

Foot traffic is growing as the mall gains critical mass and consumers find more options. Chanel Simpson of Newark stopped by on a whim with her two children after a nearby medical appointment. She planned to purchase sneakers for her son at Foot Locker, but she wound up buying more: shoes for her daughter at Kids Foot Locker, a CD at fye, and pizza at the food court.

“It’s cool to see more than one place to get pizza because I like having a choice,” she says. “It’s a relaxing environment, which is important if you want to keep people coming back.”

Longtime merchants are an important part of the mix. Café Riviera built a loyal following of customers, operating Concord since 1981. When owner Michael Tumolo balked over Namdar’s terms for a new lease, the family restaurant announced its departure. The landlord sweetened its offer and persuaded Café Riviera to stay.

Concord succeeded in wooing Rasa Sayang from its site at the nearby Independence Mall strip shopping center with a larger space that can help the Malaysian restaurant to grow.

The mall also has benefited from the woes of other shopping centers. When the moribund Tri-State Mall in Claymont announced it would close to make way for a regional logistics center, Dahlke immediately grabbed a stack of business cards, drove over, and started shaking hands.

“There were some stores there that I wanted to cherry-pick,” he says.

Six businesses made the move, including Sound of Tri-State car stereo center, a discount furniture store, three youth-oriented apparel stores, and Kim’s, a nail, waxing and lash salon.

Concord continues to grow. In September, the Selfie Museum debuted, part of a strategy to attract younger shoppers who haven’t developed a mall habit. At Selfie, guests pay a small entry fee and use staged sets as a backdrop for TikTok videos, Facebook Reels, and Instagram posts. Concord also plans to add a virtual lounge, where visitors can explore video games and 3-D action.

In a time of sweeping change in the way consumers shop, Concord’s success is mirrored to a lesser extent throughout the industry. After years of widespread mall closures and conversions, surviving malls are showing signs of solidifying. In a conference call with investors, Simon Property Group, the owner of Dover Mall, reported retailers are no longer backing out of deals to open stores. Its occupancy rate nationwide has ticked up to 93.9 percent compared to 91.8 percent in 2021.

There are other signs of a turning tide. Before COVID, brick-and-mortar retail was in free fall as consumers shifted to online shopping. In 2019, the market watcher Coresight tracked 9,832 closures, compared with 4,689 openings. Last year, retail managed a modest gain, as openings outpaced closings by 68 stores.

The new Cleopatra store inside Concord Mall
Kyle McKinnon, Delaware Public Media
The new Cleopatra store inside Concord Mall

Still, significant hurdles remain, including inflation that is leaving many shoppers with less confidence and fewer discretionary dollars.

At Concord, there are currently no suitors for the vacant Sears anchor, which is owned by Transformco, Sears’ holding company. Dahlke says communication between the mall owner and Transformco is minimal but he is hopeful the lights will someday go on in the space.

“It’s ideal for entertainment and I can see two large tenants, one upstairs and one downstairs,” he says. “I would love to have a Dave and Buster’s and we are far enough from Philadelphia that we wouldn’t compete with the Dave and Buster’s there.”

Concord made national headlines when the mall revealed a Burger King built in 1986 that had been preserved behind a temporary wall since the French fry was served in 2009. It wasn’t a well-kept secret—mall staff used the old fast food site to run hoses to water plants—but the media buzz got Burger King’s attention.

Mall management and Burger King are talking about reviving the site, preserving its nostalgic pink and turquoise booths. Dahlke thinks it would be a hit with Baby Boomers reliving their teen memories of hanging out at the mall.

“That would be really cool,” he says.

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Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.