AURORA OUTLIER: Southlands blooming among an industry of fading flowers

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A covered store front is currently under construction for a Sephora, which will fill the vacant space, March 7, 2020.
Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | Outside of the brewing COVID-19 crisis, malls are closing. Shopping centers nationwide are struggling to attract patrons and keep businesses. Retail is suffering.

Not at Southlands in Aurora, center officials say.

Local economic boosters say Southlands, one of the largest shopping centers in the state, appears to be bucking the trends.

Southlands Shopping Center recently signed three new stores for its 1.7 million square-foot shopping complex in South Aurora: Open this month is Anthony Vince Nail Spa, a mani-pedi chain with two other locations in Colorado. Beauty giant Sephora will open a Southlands location in June followed by Five Below, a discount store, in July.

Located near the intersection of E-470 and South Smoky Hill Road, the outdoor shopping center now boasts about 150 businesses including Petco, Bed, Bath & Beyond, an AMC movie theater and bars and restaurants.

Southlands management highlighted the addition of Five Below, which will be leasing a 10,000 square-foot space.

In a statement, mall management and retail giant M&J Wilkow said Southlands “is consistently attracting new businesses and retailers to the southeast Aurora area, and with Five Below investing in this location, Southlands continues to grow as a prominent community resource.”

Southlands’ general manager, Marty Liles, celebrated the addition of Five Below in particular. The discount store hawks $5 to $10 merchandise for teen and tween shoppers and operates about 900 stores across the U.S.

The mall says the new stores additions are emblematic of a greater success. Liles said about 90 percent of Southland stores are occupied in its gargantuan shopping center. More stores will likely be on the way.

Nationwide, the outlook isn’t so peachy.

Forecasters expect more indoor and more conventional malls to close their doors in coming years as so-called anchor stores close locations.

Indoor shopping centers in particular have suffered with the rise of e-commerce. But that industry’s tentacles are long: last year, online retail sales surpassed department store buys for the first time, according to U.S. Department of Commerce reports, reaching almost 12 percent of all retail sales in the first quarter of 2019. That’s up from just 4 percent at the beginning of 2010, the Sentinel reported in January.

But Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, said the market shocks aren’t plaguing Southlands.

“I can see why they are very optimistic there about their future growth,” he said.

Hougen situated Southlands in positive economic outlooks for east Aurora as a whole. A booming residential sector brings more homes to the plains seemingly every month. Those residents will need retail, he said, and Southlands will provide. He thinks economic development near Denver International Airport and Buckley Air Force base is also contributing to a healthy, regional economy.

But he thinks e-commerce is doing much more harm to businesses than people know.

“I think they are under attack by the internet,” he said. “There’s too many people shopping online and not supporting our brick and mortars.”

There are some similarities in strategy at the mostly open-air Southlands and Aurora’s indoor mall, the Town Center at Aurora, located near the Intersection of East Alameda Avenue and Interstate 225.

Both are regularly hosting events to keep folks coming into stores. Southlands created a popular “sensory-friendly Santa” event in
December tailored for children and adults on the autism spectrum normally bugged by bright lights and too many kids. The mall also hosts holiday parades, which Hougen said he enjoys.

For its part, the Town Center is converting its old Sears space into an indoor sport emporium and separately hosting high school wrestling events that have been well-attended.

The sales tax revenue generated at these malls is crucial for the city, Hougen said.

In the Town Center, sales taxes businesses paid to the city of Aurora in 2018 passed a $5.8 million benchmark for the first time in 15 years, making the mall eligible for a significant tax rebate.

Southlands is regularly contributing more in sales tax revenue, reaching $11,420,746 in 2018 after a multi-year increase.