by James Coulter
Nearly a year ago, Eagle Ridge Mall was a ghost town like most other malls across America. Since then, it has experienced tremendous change and growth with nearly a dozen stores opening and the re-opening of its bowling alley and entertainment center.
Eagle Ridge Mall has experienced the opening of several new stores, including a juice bar, a tattoo salon, an art gallery, an insurance agency, and even Spirt of Halloween. Other new businesses expected to open soon include a comics and collectibles store, a toy store, a new boutique, and the Unicorn Castle.
Charles Caraway has overseen these changes since accepting his position as mall manager in June. Since then, he has heavily promoted the mall on social media, especially their Facebook page, and has leased most of their space through affordable rental fees. Unlike other store properties, store owners can enjoy a low rate without paying for utilities like electric or water, he said.
“I don’t think anyone can open a store in the Lake Wales area for as low as $1,000 a month. That is how I am attracting these people,” he said. “A lot of people walk through and see the empty stores. What I want people to realize is that there are 95 stores available for lease in this mall. We are 56 stores full, so we are over halfway full and it is always growing with one store, on average, per month.”
Their biggest store contract, by far, had been with Spirit of Halloween. Having set up shop from July to November, the store attracted plenty of foot traffic into the mall prior to Halloween, Caraway said. The store made good sales and drew in big crowds, he said.
Another major refurbishment has been its nearly $40,000 investment into its air conditioning system, which has long been defunct and which has been the source of many complaints from mall patrons and store owners, Caraway explained.
“That was the biggest complaint: that it was too hot in the mall,” he said. “We spent thousands of dollars repairing ACs, but we have a long way to go, but we are slowly working on to clean up and bring us back where they used to be.”
Perhaps the biggest upgrade to the mall has been the return of its bowling alley and entertainment center. Previously Kings Burgers and Imperial Lanes, which shut down shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, the now re-branded Lake Wales Bowl is expected to re-open later this month.
With 14 bowling lanes, 15 arcade games and counting, and the newly-refurbished resturant, Lake Wales Bowl will offer the same great fun under new management. The bowling alley is even expected to become a greater draw than the movie theater right across from them, explained manager Esteban Nina.
“I feel like the bowling alley is there to attract more attention to other clients and other store owners [wh might want to] have a store in the mall,” Estaban said. “Everywhere I go, they say the bowling alley is the draw. There is a cinema, but the biggest draw is the bowling alley.”
With his background in the hospitality industry and his partner’s experience in the resturant industry, Estaban has high hopes to bring the bowling alley back to its former glory. Not only does he want to bring fresh life to the mall, but he also to provide a place for local families to spend quality time.
“We understand that Lake Wales is in need of community area or place for families to meet and hang out,” Estaban said. “Everywhere I go…they say the same thing, we need a place like this for the families of Lake Wales because there is nothing out here but bars…We want to keep the Lake Wales community in mind. We understand the need of Lake Wales…[and] we want to make a family-friendly environment for families. That is our intention.”
While they are not currently equipped to host official bowling leagues, they invite anyone wanting to start an unofficial leauge or club to utilize their facilities. Overall, they want to provide a local venue for residents and families to enjoy quality time.
“We truly want to hear from the community and give them what we are asking for,” he said. “We want them to communicate with us via Facebook Messenger and let us know what they want from Lake Wales Bowl. We want to comply the best we can, so I would love to hear from the community some more.”
While most of the mall space is being used for commerce, other space is being used for a greater purpose. Bobby Williams, president/founder of The Freedom Tour, leases the former Sears building to use as a distribution center for his ministry’s food drives and many other charities.
The old store’s facility provides them enough space to contain all their donations, while the loading dock and parking lot provides enough space for them to load and distribute these donations. Williams does not wish to utilize only the Sears building. He sees utilizing other space in the mall to help further the good of his church and its ministry, he said.
Having been at the mall for more than a year, he has seen it undergo massive development and growth. He sees it as a place that everyone is returning to after a long time of low activity and traffic. What was once a ghost town has since experienced a massive boom, and he wants his church to be a part of it, Williams said.
“We have seen a lot of development and growth around…from every aspect of business,” he said. “People thought for the longest time it was dead and there was nobody here, so anytime you bring movement to life and a place that helps create things happening…it keeps people in here and it keeps improving the mall doing what we do.”
With the holidays right around the corner, Caraway hopes to attract even more patrons and store owners to the mall with upcoming events. They even plan on hosting a comic convention in the
near future. He has high expectations moving forward, and considering how expectation have been met thus far, he expects them to remain high.
“I know malls may be a thing of the past in many people’s opinions, but I feel here in Lake Wales, I feel we can bring it back,” he said. “We need people to support it and patronize the people who are here, so that we can get these name brands back.”
Eagle Ridge Mall is located at 414 Eagle Ridge Dr., Lake Wales, FL. For more information, visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100070360814526