By Mary Beth DeCecco
The opening of Colonie Center in 1966 marked the shift from shopping in downtown areas to shopping in suburban malls. Forty years later, the mall is in the midst of a $75 million renovation that has turned it into an upscale shopping center.
Owned and managed by Feldman Mall Properties, an Arizona and New York based company that buys malls and breathes new life into them, Colonie Center has turned into an upscale lifestyle/entertainment center in just one year. The transformation is part of a trend among many shopping malls in the area, including Newton Plaza in Latham and The Clifton Park Center in Clifton Park.
For Colonie Center, the construction project is broken up into two phases. Phase I, which began last November and wrapped up in July, consisted of refurbishing the interior of the mall. The $10 million project included all new hand rails, new tile floors, new lighting, new paint, 11 seating areas for weary shoppers or husbands-in-waiting (three with fireplaces, three with televisions), a newly built staircase by the upper level of Macy’s, a children’s play area on the lower level near Sears and a family room near the restrooms. The improvement has been dramatic: demolition of large staircases has opened up sight lines throughout the mall so that shoppers can see from one end of the mall to another. The California-based Cheesecake Factory, a much anticipated restaurant for the area, recently opened, and gives the exterior of the mall a whole new character. Phase II, currently in progress, includes the addition of L.L. Bean, Barnes & Noble and PF Chang’s, a Chinese food bistro, all set to open next fall. Still under construction is the food court, which will be expanded to increase seating from 315 to 450, as well as a third level over the court which will house a 12-screen, 2,800 seat Regal Cinemas.
In keeping with the overhaul of the mall, Victoria’s Secret and Spector’s, both revamped their store (Spector’s built a new 7,000 square foot store), while a handful of other stores were temporarily displaced pending completion of the final construction.
The man who oversees the day to day operations of the 1.2 million square foot mall (1.3 million when the project is completed) is General Manager Joseph Millett. I decided to spend a day with him to learn the ins and outs of his job.
One thing that was evident from the start is that Millett is a busy man. Three times I had to wait for him to come out of meetings, including when I first arrived at 10am on a Tuesday. As I sat in the mall office, which is located at the end of the Cheesecake Factory corridor on the first level (near Foot Locker), I made small talk with a man (who happened to be reading CRL, always nice to see) also there for an appointment.
During my time in and out of the office that day, I noticed the hint of frenzy – there always seemed to be people coming and going, including employees, all of whom are equipped with two-way radios so they have access to each other.
Upon meeting Millett, we went to his office, where we talked for about an hour before embarking on a tour of the mall. Not one to let the phone ring through to voicemail, he picked up all his calls. His office resembled that of an architect’s with maps and blueprints of the mall hanging along the walls. A few family photos line the top of a bookshelf and a photo of him in his choral group hangs on another.
An amiable guy, Joe is the authority figure in the office, but not in an intimidating way. He has an “open door” policy so anyone can pop in at any time.
A Long Island transplant, Millett has been in the business of managing malls since 1980. His career has taken him to Massachusetts, Connecticut and the mid-West. Admittedly, managing a mall is a high-pressure job, but Millett seems to thrive on it. He has been the Manager of Colonie Center for three years.
“I love it. I love the business,” said Millett. “It’s a rewarding job.”
Moving to the area was a change from downstate, but Wolf Road wasn’t all too unfamiliar to him. He once worked for Herman’s Sporting Goods, Inc. as Vice President of Operations for the Northeast, so his work often brought him to the area.
“My wife and l love the area. We find the people to be very friendly and very congenial. We also love the central location of Albany to get to other places that we like to visit.”
Typically, malls are either run by owners of a mall or by a third party. What Millett likes about working for Feldman is that they own and manage their own company.
“Decision making at this level is instantaneous,” he said. One such decision was to revamp their holiday decorations. “The previous program was outdated.”
A new, quarter-of-a-million dollar program was purchased (and designed) through Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, based in Michigan (which also includes the Easter set).
Like elves working into the wee hours of the night, it took over a dozen employees (including Millett) five days to transform the mall into a festive shopping area. This year they had help from the designer of the set, but next year they’re on their own.
New this year is a 26-foot tree at Center Court with snowmen, Santa’s Woodland Retreat (Sear’s end) with animated figurines, a giant kaleidoscope, a large Fun Mirror, a Writing Desk to compose a letter to Santa and a Santa Mailbox for eager children to mail their letters. Also, the lower level fireplace is adorned with a five foot wreath.
When asked how he deals with the possibility of offending non-Christians, he said, “We try to maintain the holiday theme.”
The one day mall manager
During the course of the day, there were a couple of times where I had to make myself scarce while Millett was in meetings I couldn’t be in. So, I had the difficult time of having to kill time….in a mall of 120 stores (including 18 carts and a half-dozen kiosks). As a female, it might be unfathomable for some to hear that I’m not a mall shopper. I typically only hit Macy’s, and rarely venture into the enclave of stores. But, this day I decided to take advantage of my extra time and walk around.
Once Millett was free again, we headed to The Cheesecake Factory for lunch. Even the mall manager has no clout here – we still had to wait for a table. In the meantime, he took me on a tour of the mall.
Seeing it in the eyes of the manager, rather than just a shopper, was enlightening. As we walked and talked, Millett straightened a larger flower pot that was a couple of inches out of place. He showed me the new Turner Construction Playland and Santa’s Woodland Retreat. He greeted a few older men by name who sat in a seating area. “They come here every day and they always buy something,” he said.
When we encountered a few rowdy teens, he went up to them and in no time was laughing with them and patting them on their backs. We passed two women wondering aloud where a certain store was and Millett was eager to help them out. Other shoppers were looking for the Cheesecake Factory, which he highly endorsed as a place to dine.
After only 15 minutes our buzzer went off and we enjoyed a nice lunch and easy conversation. Following our meal, we went back to the office to meet John Hudak, the mall’s interior landscaper, from Plant Designs in Rochester.
After we were introduced, he immediately praised Millett.
“Most people in my position might not see the manager,” he said. “But, they truly work as a team here.”
Hudak was right. Joined by Operations Manager Rob Gailor, Hudak, Millett and I ventured out into the mall once more (at this point, I could easily be considered a mall walker) to check on the horticulture and decide where the Christmas poinsettias would go. It truly was a team effort. Stopping at each planter Millett would debate Hudak about the condition of some of the plants. Hudak agreed with some of Millett’s observation, but insisted that others were doing fine despite their color. We all areed that one plant was a goner, most likely the victim of some foul substance having been poured into it.
Whatever the case, I learned that successful mall manager has to be a jack of all trades. Part architect, part salesperson, all team-player, a manager’s job is never done. And, with all the improvements being made at the mall, I’m proud of my own small contribution; you might notice it: around the fireplace mantels are some poinsettias. That was my idea.
Not bad for a one-day mall manager, huh?
Read on to learn more.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome? The biggest challenge was changing the perception of the mall. It was a tired mall and stores were leaving. But, Feldman takes C-level malls not fully tenanted and turns them into A-level malls. We want to provide a more pleasurable shopping experience for the customer and have done this through redevelopment.
What is your typical day like? It’s different everyday. I get here early and sometimes don’t leave until 6pm or 7pm. Some nights I leave and then come back. I deal on a regular basis with town supervisors and the Town of Colonie Building Department. My main job these days is to drive construction and help stores maximize their income. Turner Construction is very safety oriented. Every week I walk around the mall with officials from the Building Department, Fire Department and construction workers to ensure that we are compliant with life safety issues for the customers.
Do you hold regular tenant meetings? Yes, we have monthly meetings and cover marketing, status of construction and anything else. Typically, the outcome is good, about 50 percent in attendance.
What will your days be like when this construction is complete? I will be more involved with the everyday running of the office. I’ll also visit stores more often and track sales.
Does the certain positioning of stores affect sales? Yes. Sometimes the flow of stores might not be right. You might have to take the junior’s stores and keep them together, rather than spread them throughout the mall.
Are you selective about which stores you let in? Yes. When deciding on a specific store, I have to be sure that I am filling a merchandise need.
Has shoplifting increased or decreased in the past few years? It has decreased, but I generally find that most shoplifting occurs internally, by the workers.
Does the mall open early for mall walkers? Yes, we open at 9am. We also have a Mall Walkers Club that comes in on Wednesday and Friday mornings and uses our conference room to do their stretches. The program is part of the Colonie Senior Service Center.
Do you receive many complaints from shoppers? I’ve received about a half-a-dozen complaints in three years. There are complaint forms at Customer Service. Typically complaints have to do with a specific store.
Who makes the call on when to close the mall during inclement weather conditions? I do. There are 5,000 mall employees, including the anchor stores. I look out for the best interests of the employees.
What do you do with all the poinsettias after the holidays? We hand them out to shoppers after New Year’s as a thank you for shopping here.
Does the mall support any local charities? We host the American Heart Association Heart Walk and offer gift wrapping with proceeds benefiting the Capital City Rescue Mission.
What do you do when you’re not working? I sing and direct a barbershop music group called the Electric City Chorus in Schenectady and the River Valley Sweet Adelines, also in Schenectady.