State College

As longtime businesses close, is the Nittany Mall taking a new direction?

Bonnie Spetzer participates in nickel bingo Friday at the Centre Region Active Adult Center in Nittany Mall. The CRAAC moved into the mall three years ago, and is an example of a growing number of non-traditional tenants.
Bonnie Spetzer participates in nickel bingo Friday at the Centre Region Active Adult Center in Nittany Mall. The CRAAC moved into the mall three years ago, and is an example of a growing number of non-traditional tenants.

Gary Landon moved into the Nittany Mall last April, a little more than a month after Sears closed up shop permanently and Bon-Ton announced its intention to do the same. The only thing that Happy Wraps shared with those two entities is a neighborhood, but its selection of wraps and salads does bare some resemblance to Old State Deli, the previous tenant of the space wedged between Zales and the Verizon Wireless store.

None of that really bothers Landon. The world is a big sea filled with other anchors, and mall management was flexible on the price of the lease. He's also betting that Happy Wraps' focus on healthy ingredients will help distinguish it from other restaurants populating the surrounding shopping centers. Failing that, at least the parking is convenient.

"I really wanted to be somewhere that's easily accessible to the community and I think the mall offers that," Landon said.

"Accessible" doesn't necessarily translate into steady business. The path between Macy's and the former Sears features several darkened storefronts, resembling a string of Christmas lights where a handful of bulbs have intermittently flickered and died.

Happy Wraps is still shining, though.

Landon is looking to attract more students and faculty from Penn State and as well as other potential customers earning their lunch money at one of the businesses lining East and West College Avenue. In the meantime, referrals from neighboring storefronts have been helping, ("Being across from Holiday Hair is, like, clutch," Landon said). He returns the favor whenever possible. If a customer should casually mention a busted cellphone, Landon will point in the direction of the I-Cell Repair booth located down the hall.

"It works both ways," Landon said.

When someone inevitably wanders by to ask about one-stop shopping for apple butter and bug spray, Landon can refer them to Emporium, a store located near the former Bon-Ton that features goods from more than 60 local artists. Owners K.C. Peck and Aimee Conklin originally opened their new venture for a 3-month trial period last October and have since transitioned to an annual lease. Peck said that most of the properties he looked at downtown required at least a 5-year commitment, which was intimidating to a new business owner.

Emporium Market was supposed to be just a pop-up shop during the holiday season, but the owners recently signed a yearlong lease in the Nittany Mall. Phoebe Sheehan Centre Daily Times, file

He grew up around Nittany Mall and in his mind, it's still the place to be.

"I see a bright future here. I know it's not exactly a popular opinion," Peck said.

It helps that business has been good. Peck attributes their success in part to a stable of locally sourced products like scented candles, soaps and jams that provide a sensory experience not easily replicated in the online marketplace. Later this summer, he and Conklin will open a spin-off restaurant, Emporium Edibles, in the old RC's Dogs spot.

Peck said that their traffic has been steady despite the closing of mall landmarks like Bon-Ton, Sears and Garfield's Restaurant and Pub. He admits to having moments of concern, but ultimately believes that the turnover will allow the table to be set for whatever comes next.

"I think the smaller storefronts are going to fill up with locally owned things," Peck said.

The shape of those "locally owned things" might vary from the traditional retail format — or the traditional retail aesthetic. Like Claire's or Spencer Gifts, the entrance to The Centre Region Active Adult Center (near the former Sears), basically resembles an open garage door. Supervisor Cindy Stahlman said that there are plans to fill in that gap with a glass door and two walls to help control the temperature.

Stahlman and the CRAAC made a home at Nittany Mall three years ago. They are paying less than they were at their former location on downtown Fraser Street and have grown in space by about 3,000 square feet, allowing them to double up on programming during the course of any given day.

"This is the best thing that could happen to us," Stahlman said.

That's coming from a woman who used to traverse the Fraser Street Parking Garage trying to help forgetful seniors find their cars. The mall negates that problem — or at least simplifies it a little. Stahlman said that many of the center's members can take the bus to the mall, granting them a measure of independence they might not have if they regularly rely on family or friends to get around.

Outside of the holiday shopping season, Stahlman acknowledges that CRAAC probably doesn't provide much of a boon to neighboring businesses (although they will miss Auntie Anne's Pretzels). She thinks if the mall continued to add more community-oriented spaces like the Active Adult Center or the incoming Dance Academy of State College, they would have to exist in balance with the building's retail tenants.

Landon, for one, is looking forward to the dance academy's arrival this summer. The space (formerly teen retailer Justice) will host programming aimed at both children and adults — all of whom have to eat somewhere. Stahlman's seniors will also occasionally stop at Happy Wraps for a bite.

He's not opposed to sharing the mall with non-traditional tenants but values a retail presence.

"I think ideally, for the mall in general, you want to see more retail space," Landon said.

Polly Welch, Nittany Mall general manager, did not return a request for comment.