Underway for several months now, the transformation of Southgate Mall is becoming more visible to residents and shoppers. 

The view of Southgate from West Ehringhaus Street now includes large, new signage in front of the future relocated Hibbett Sports and the future relocated Saslow’s Jewelers.

The two stores and other remaining major tenants inside Southgate are being transferred to upgraded spaces toward the mall’s north side, facing West Ehringhaus. The new configuration is part of an ongoing project to “de-mall” the nearly half-century old Southgate to make the property less enclosed and more outdoor in appearance.

One of those observing the construction work on Friday was Alex Doyal, who’s visiting family in Elizabeth City. Doyal, 28, a native of the Harbor of Hospitality, presently lives in Denver, where he has a computer software company.

Reacting to the changes at Southgate, Doyal said, “I was shocked when I got here.”

Southgate was established in 1969 as the Albemarle region’s first and only indoor shopping center. Doyal recalled Southgate’s glory days, when the mall was a hangout, and he used to spend lots of free time there after school.

“I don’t know where people hang out in Elizabeth City now,” he said.

The Vireo Group, which is based in Augusta, Georgia, acquired Southgate in an online auction in February 2017, reportedly for $2.3 million.

Southgate had been in the hands of a Miami-based debt servicing firm since an auction on the Pasquotank County Courthouse steps after the mall’s previous owner, New York-based ABC Properties, defaulted on a bank promissory note.

Vireo managing member and spokesman Clay Boardman III, who communicates with reporters via email, has promised major changes to Southgate. Vireo’s website is now referring to the mall as “Southgate Park.”

Since acquiring Southgate, the former Elizabeth City Kangaroo convenience store, once located just to the northeast side of the mall’s main driving entrance, has been demolished.

On the west side of the mall, crews have also leveled the sites of the former Elizabeth City J.C. Penney and the former Elizabeth City Merchants Tire and Auto.

Boardman, in an email last week, said either he, fellow Managing Member John Gibson or the property manager is at Southgate at least three days a week and said the company is “pushing hard” with the project.

“I can promise you that all is going as fast as we can possibly manage,” Boardman said.

Boardman referred questions to Hibbett and Saslow’s about when those relocated stores are going to be ready to serve customers. Neither representatives of Hibbett nor Saslow’s could immediately be reached via emails on Friday, but Boardman said he can say he believes those two locations are going to be open quite soon based on the progress of the construction work.

Meantime, Doyal said he’s glad to see someone is fixing up Southgate. He added that he would be curious what, if any, future retailers Vireo is going to bring in.

“We could use new and better stores,” he said.

Elizabeth City resident Wendy Meads was one of shoppers trickling in and out of the mall on Friday.

Meads, an Elizabeth City resident since 1999, had, like many others, witnessed the decline of business at Southgate under the previous ownership, as many tenants either went out of business, retired or relocated elsewhere.

“It has been pretty empty for a long time,” she said, adding that she does most of her shopping across the border in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area.

She said she would like to see mega-retailer Target open a store in Elizabeth City. The nearest Target is approximately 35 miles away from Elizabeth City, in Chesapeake, Va.

As for the construction work at Southgate, Meads said, “I’ll be glad when it’s done.” 

At the site of the future relocated Hibbett Sports on Friday, a truck was backed up to the front door, with a team unloading new shelves. Among the crewmen was Robert Simpson, of Williamsburg, Va.

Noting the renovations, Simpson said, “ I think it’s cool.”

Simpson said malls and shopping centers in his community are closing. He said the shutdowns are a result of increasing numbers of people doing their shopping via the Internet.

“So, seeing a mall, where you can actually go and touch things, is pretty good,” he said.

Hibbett presently has two locations in Elizabeth City, with the other one being at Tanglewood Pavilions off Halstead Boulevard Extended.