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HAZELWOOD • A cavernous mall space that formerly housed a Books-A-Million store will soon be the new home for a growing north St. Louis County church.

Hope Church has signed a lease to occupy 40,000 square feet in the former bookstore and 12 additional vacant stores at St. Louis Outlet Mall, which opened as the St. Louis Mills in Hazelwood in 2003.

The nondenominational church plans to relocate to the mall before the end of the year from a building it has occupied at 10636 Bellefontaine Road for more than 40 years, said senior pastor Greg Bruce. The church’s membership has grown to 1,300, and the vast spaces available at the mall will allow it to double seating capacity to 700 for each of its Sunday services.

“We’ve been looking for more space, and this turned out to be a great opportunity for us,” Bruce said.

The church lease reflects the St. Louis Outlet Mall’s efforts to attract nonretail tenants after dozens of stores closed their doors over the past decade.

When the Mills Corp. opened the $250 million, 1.2 million-square-foot mall, the property had about 200 tenants. City officials at the time projected the entertainment and retail center would attract 15 million people annually, mostly from outside the St. Louis region.

Only about two dozen businesses remain, including the mall’s largest store, Cabela’s, which occupies 130,000 square feet. Other tenants include an 18-screen movie theater and the Ice Zone hockey rink that serves as the practice facility for the St. Louis Blues hockey team.

But excluding Cabela’s, which doesn’t have entryways accessible from inside the mall, St. Louis Outlet Mall is mostly vacant.

To get to the Children’s Place, Bath & Body Works, Hibbett Sports or a handful of other stores that remain open, shoppers must walk past corridors with mostly vacant, shuttered storefronts.

Two tenants, Burlington and Ross Dress For Less, now have chain security gates preventing entry from the mall concourses, and customers are directed to enter from exterior doors. The mall’s food court is closed, leaving Wetzel’s Pretzels as the only place for shoppers to grab a bite to eat.

On an afternoon this week, the mall was eerily quiet, with no music playing overhead and only a few shoppers.

“A lot of the big stores left, and the small family-owned businesses that needed that traffic stopped renting here,” said Bryan Wahle, owner of Wholesale Mattress and Furniture Outlet, a tenant in the mall for the past eight years. “It’s like a ghost town here during the week.”

Wahle leases 30,000 square feet for three furniture stores. He moved his business from Kirkwood to the mall, drawn by inexpensive rent and the ability to expand. Foot traffic in the mall was good at first but deteriorated in recent years, he said. Two outlet malls that opened in Chesterfield in 2013 prompted some shoppers to seek out the newer properties.

New owners

After Namdar Realty Group of New York bought St. Louis Outlet Mall through an online auction early last year, representatives told Hazelwood officials that the company planned to look beyond retail tenants to revitalize the property.

The long list of tenants that closed their doors at the mall include Marshall’s, Gap Outlet and Banana Republic Outlet.

But over the last 12 months, the mall has gained a few tenants, in a turnaround from the flood of retailers that vacated. New tenants include the St. Louis United Sports Academy, which has batting cages for instruction in a space formerly occupied by a Nike store. The Rusty Wallace Karting Center recently opened a go-kart track in the former NASCAR Speedpark space. And discount furniture store Midwest Clearance Center opened in April in space formerly leased by Bed, Bath & Beyond.

“We’re looking at all our options and we’re not ruling out call centers or office space,” said Matt Murphy, who was hired as the mall’s general manager last summer. “I definitely see this as a mixed-use instead of a retail shopping center.”

Recent leases show progress in turning the property around, according to Murphy. “It looks like it’s coming back to life,” Murphy said. “We still have a long way to go, but we’re heading in the right direction with these leases.”

Namdar owns other struggling U.S. malls that it’s seeking to turn around by attracting churches. At Namdar’s 1.4 million-square-foot Regency Square Mall in Jacksonville, Fla., Impact Church has acquired a former Belk department store and plans to renovate the space into a sanctuary.

Wholesale Mattress and Furniture Outlet’s Wahle said he welcomes a church tenant filling empty spaces at St. Louis Outlet Mall. When Hope Church held a recent open house in the mall space, Wahle offered congregants a 10 percent discount at his store.

But the new life at the mall may not be enough to retain Wahle’s three stores. One of the mall’s new tenants that opened a few doors down, Midwest Clearance Center, sells nearly identical furniture as his.

“They have the same brands, which hurts us,” Wahle said, adding he’s considering leaving the mall in the next year or two when his inventory sells out.

Seizing opportunity

As the number of vacant or struggling malls grows across the country, other churches have found success in converting former retail space for church use.

When Southland Christian Church in Nicholasville, Ky., wanted to add a satellite location for parishioners in Lexington, Ky., in 2010, it acquired the shuttered Lexington Mall. Southland converted a former Dillard’s store into staff offices and a nursery and built a new auditorium on a portion of the mall property that was demolished. The former Lexington Mall now accommodates 5,000 parishioners every Sunday, said Kurt Braun, Southland’s executive director of operations and advancement.

“There’s no way in the world when we first started looking at it that it would make sense,” Braun said. “But the more we learned about the property, we saw the potential impact it could have on the surrounding neighborhood. We wanted to be a light in a dark place. It’s a good marrying of the needs of the church with the needs of the community.”

Some former shoppers at the former Kentucky mall stop by the church to share their memories. “As we opened the building, we heard from a lot of people who said they bought their prom dress here or had lunch with their grandparents here,” Braun said.

For Hope Church, the Hazelwood mall location represents a chance to more than triple its current space in a property that’s centrally located for its members.

Bruce, the senior pastor, was driving around north St. Louis County earlier this year scouting properties for a church event when, on a whim, he turned into the mall’s parking lot. Through conversations with the mall’s representatives, he said he quickly realized how the property with its abundant parking and the structure’s high ceilings may be a perfect fit for the church.

“This facility is still immaculate, it’s beautiful,” Bruce said. “Where else can you find a place where they put the money that they did into the property, and it’s close to the highway.”

Bruce said the nontraditional space for Hope Church’s new sanctuary and classrooms align with his church’s style. “It’s not traditional or orthodox, and that’s who we are as a church,” Bruce said. “I believe that the mall is coming back. It’s really becoming more of a community center than retail.”

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