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Blue skies for downtown malls?

Besieged with setbacks and obstacles, Salt Lake's downtown malls continue their fight to woo shoppers back to the city's center.

Urban sprawl, freeway and light-rail construction and traffic congestion have kept people from making the trek downtown the past few years. Add to that a year-long national economic downturn, and mall officials admit they've taken a hit squarely on their collective chin.

"We've been through a lot the last few years," ZCMI Center marketing director Melissa Wayment said.

But with the completion of the north-south light-rail line, the end of I-15 reconstruction in sight and a savvy marketing campaign, the downtown malls say they're on the mend.

"We feel like we're on the upswing right now," Wayment said. "When they shut down the freeway and dug up Main Street all at the same time, I think it formed in the minds of consumers that they should just stay away. But I think people are not looking just for a shopping experience these days, but an entertainment experience. And that's what downtown offers."

J. Floyd Hatch, state director for the mountain states chapter of the International Council of Shopping Centers, said he believes Utah has "postured itself perfectly" for retail growth. And that includes downtown.

"Utah is in a prime position for retail growth, because of two things: improvements in the infrastructure and roads," Hatch said. "We've got the resources we need to have very viable retail and commercial businesses."

Wayment and Crossroads Plaza marketing director Tami Ivy said their research shows more people are coming downtown via light rail or the new freeway, and because shoppers are discovering that parking isn't really as bad as some would have them think.

As a result, the mall reps say their vacancy rates are low. Crossroads has leased 90 percent of its available space with several additional contracts pending; ZCMI Center reported it has leased all but two of its stores. The ZCMI Center also expects to do a mallwide remodel this year, Wayment said, to unveil a jazzy new look in time for the 2002 Winter Games.

Still, both admit theirs may be a slow road back. The economy is still fighting a case of sluggishness, they said, and sky-high gas prices may motivate shoppers to stay close to home.

Oh, and there's also that tiny wisp of a thing going up around the corner: the $375 million Gateway project, located a few blocks west of both malls.

"It is an intriguing problem," Ivy said. "But hopefully, the three malls downtown will create the synergy to bring people back downtown so they can enjoy the full experience."

The 1.1 million-square-foot, mixed-use Gateway development, scheduled to be completed Nov. 1, will offer a chic array of retail stores, restaurants and entertainment alternatives. Jake Boyer, project manager of Gateway developer The Boyer Co., said retail vendors will include Abercrombie & Fitch, J. Crew and Ann Taylor Loft.

Though Gateway initially may intimidate nearby malls, Boyer said his project hopefully will help all downtown merchants by bringing people in from the suburbs.

"Our studies have shown that retail sales in Salt Lake City have really declined," Boyer said. "We want to help bring people back downtown. And our philosophy has always been that a rising tide lifts all ships. So if this is the project that lifts us up, then we hope it will also help lift the other downtown merchants. We don't want them to die out. That doesn't help any of us."

Wayment said she believes each of the three neighboring malls will have something to offer — together, perhaps downtown will find the perfect mix.

"We're in the perfect position," she said. "They (Gateway) are trying to build on getting the higher-end national tenants from out of state, which is nice. But I don't know if everyone is going to be able to shop there. Crossroads also has a lot of national stores, and we have the locals. Between the three of us, we have a wide range of price ranges, a good balance."