Hawthorn Mall owners look to add restaurants, entertainment options

Chicago Tribune: Vernon Hills Review

Representatives from Hawthorn Mall's new ownership team say they want the shopping center to offer experiences that get patrons through their doors for more than just shopping.

Investment firms Centennial Real Estate Company, Montgomery Street Partners, and USAA Real Estate Company bought an 80 percent stake in Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills and Fox Valley Mall in Aurora this past December, a deal they reported as being worth $1.1 billion.

In their announcement, the group said Dallas-based Centennial would take over day-to-day management from Westfield, who is now a silent minority owner.

Centennial's Chief Executive Officer Steven Levin and Chief Operating Officer Dan Sheridan met privately with Vernon Hills Mayor Roger Byrne prior to a Village Board meeting on May 3.

"A mall should be a destination for shopping, dining, entertainment, leisure and living. That's what we're here to create," Levin later told the village board. "Westfield started it with some of the things they did, but we have a lot of larger plans."

As part of a $50 million renovation that lasted over two years, Westfield built a 12-screen AMC movie theater that can seat up to 1,600 people and serves food and alcohol. It opened in May 2015.

A new 40,000-square-foot Dave & Buster's gaming and dinning venue opened in March 2014.

Levin said some of his future plans involve a mix of tenants, fitness centers for example, and recreational events like weekend music in the foyers.

"We want to add some new components that will create a better experience, something you'll want two or hopefully three times a week," Levin said after the meeting.

Restaurants play an important role in that new experience.

"We want to bring many more restaurants," Levin said. "Not just national chains but we want local community-based restaurants that have their own calling and are one-of-a-kind worth traveling for."

After four months, Levin said his team is still analyzing regional market trends and local government regulations, but he soon hopes to formally propose new improvements or additions.

Centennial has six other malls located across the US and Canada in its portfolio.

"Chicago is a fabulous and terrific city," Levin said. "To own quality assets in one of the greatest cities in the world is a major accomplishment for us and a project we approach with a lot of excitement and optimism."

The Village of Vernon Hills does not charge a property tax, a decision officials say is the result of the large amount of sales tax revenue generated from retail corridors.

In recent years, officials in Vernon Hills and elsewhere have expressed fear over the potential loss of sales tax revenue due to online shopping.

Levin said he's not worried about in-store shopping's perceived downward trend.

"The Internet is here and it's here to stay, but people going out and getting an experience is never going away," Levin said. "Retailers have to adapt and learn how to interact with the Internet. In many ways it's a tool."

Various marketing strategies and coupon promotions can drive people into stores, Levin said, especially if the sales floor is redesigned and sales associated retrained to push a theme or experience.

Partnering with nearby businesses in other industries, like restaurants or the movie theater, could attract more patrons or extend pre-planned outings.

"People look at items on their smart phones while doing something else and plan what they want to buy on the way home," Levin said. "It's part of a new model, but it's not the end of retail."

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