Southgate Mall officially began its second act on Wednesday as Southgate Park.
A crowd of about 50 people turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark completion of the transformation of the former mall into a new shopping center.
"We think this is 'Main and Main' of Elizabeth City," Clay Boardman, managing member of Vireo Group, told the crowd. "We think this is the place to be in Elizabeth City."
The Vireo Group, which is based in Augusta, Georgia, acquired what was then the financially troubled Southgate Mall in February 2017. Soon afterward, Vireo began converting what was a late 1960s indoor shopping mall into a modern outdoor shopping center.
"We've done our best to go as fast as we possibly could so that you could see a transformation," Boardman told the crowd. "And I hope you'll visit this place, shop at this place."
Attendees at Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting included Tim Murray, director of store operations for the Greensboro-based Saslow's Jewelers chain. As part of the transformation of the mall into a shopping center, the Elizabeth City Saslow's and a handful of stores previously inside Southgate were renovated to face West Ehringhaus Street.
Murray, the No. 2 official with the Saslow's chain, said business has increased at the Elizabeth City store since the end of May.
He couldn’t cite figures, but said, "I would say it's probably three times what we had” when the store was inside Southgate Mall. "I mean, it's fabulous," he said.
He praised the Vireo Group for the transformation, saying he believes the developers did a great job renovating Southgate Mall into Southgate Park.
"I'm familiar with some of their other properties and this is probably one of their best ones for sure," he said.
Among the locals impressed with Southgate’s new look was Jennifer Terranova, owner of Grace Montessori Academy, a child care center and elementary school.
"I think it looks absolutely beautiful. It is a much-needed face-lift for the Elizabeth City area," she said.
Terranova said she especially likes the shopping center’s increased access. She described herself as a regular customer of Belk, Burkes Outlet and Shoe Dept. — three of the stores formerly at Southgate Mall that made the transition to Southgate Park.
Former Elizabeth City City Councilman Ray Donnelly also applauded the Vireo Group for its work at Southgate.
"He helped make Elizabeth City a better place to live," Donnelly said, referring to Boardman.
Donnelly said he likes the transformation.
"I mean, everything points out toward the street," he said. "You can visit each of the shops in the way you want best. I think it's going to be a great asset to the area."
Elizabeth City City Councilman Rickey King, council’s mayor pro tem, said he, too, likes the fact stores at the former mall now face the street.
"I think they did a wonderful job putting it all together," he said. “When people ride down the street, they can say, 'Oh, I've got Hibbett's, I've got Burkes, I've got Belk.' They know what they have, instead of going into the mall and getting disappointed."
Prior to the ribbon-cutting, Boardman said the Vireo Group was pleased with both the pace and the results of the transformation, noting the firm had taken “about a three-year job and turned it into less than a-year-and-a-half (job)."
Boardman also said Vireo is hopeful Northeast Academy for Aerospace and Advanced Technologies — an Elizabeth City-based STEM charter school — will locate in the remaining rear section of Southgate.
"And this hopefully will become a vibrant area yet again," he said, referring to the rear section of the former mall property.
Boardman said Vireo is also hoping to recruit fast-food restaurants to Southgate’s front parcels and possibly a grocery store to its west side. The west side is where the vacant J.C. Penney store, now demolished, once stood.
Asked why the Vireo Group became interested in Southgate Mall, Boardman said, "We mainly liked it because we owned all the outparcels.” Controlling those parcels “would allow us to do what we wanted to do, ultimately, with the property," he said.
Boardman praised Vireo Group Managing Member John Gibson for travelling to Elizabeth City for much of the transformation project. He also had praise for the city of Elizabeth City, calling city officials "good partners in the whole thing."