When Science Class Is in a Former Macy’s

By Paul Sullivan

In the early morning in November, with a chill still in the air, three lines of cars inch across the open, cracked parking lot at the Sumter Mall in Sumter, S.C.

It’s still hours before the doors open at Belk, a department store with roots in the Southeast and the mall’s last remaining anchor tenant. The mall, which is about 60 percent vacant, has a hodgepodge of other tenants. Call center workers are parking or being dropped off for their shifts. People are making their way into a nearby Planet Fitness.

But on the other side of the parking lot, scores of young children dash out of cars and through a mall entrance. They’re not playing hooky; they’re going to school in a former J.C. Penney store. And if all goes according to plan, they will keep going there for years as the school adds more grades and takes over more of the mall each year.

Developers across the country are putting new schools in struggling malls, a growing trend that serves several purposes: increasing educational opportunity, revitalizing communities and reimagining the thousands of vacant retail spaces that make once-vibrant shopping centers a blight.

“We’ve definitely seen all kinds of alternative uses of malls — to redevelop, repurpose and reimagine them,” said Thomas Dobrowski, vice chairman of the capital markets group at Newmark, a real estate services company.

Mr. Dobrowski added that more mall owners were coming around to the idea of adding schools as retail tenants dropped out. “I remember malls where 10,000 to 15,000 square feet was devoted to schools,” he said. “Now, more higher education and schools are wanting to take vacant anchor boxes for full educational use. That could be 80,000 square feet and up.”

Nationally, mall vacancy rates were about 10.3 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, up from 10.2 percent in the pandemic, according to a report from Moody’s Analytics.

Community malls like the one in Sumter have been hit even harder as consumer tastes change. “Retailers that have traditionally been mall-based have been closing underperforming stores and are now looking to smaller-format open-air suburban centers for expansion,” the commercial real estate services firm CBRE said a recent report.

But at Sumter Mall, a combination of community initiative, philanthropic interest and pragmatism on the part of the mall owner, the Hull Property Group, has led to the creation of a new tenant, Liberty STEAM Charter School.

The school was started five years ago by Greg A. Thompson, a local businessman and philanthropist, who was seeking a way to bolster the fortunes of his hometown and help him attract workers. Liberty STEAM plans to add a grade a year, with a fourth grade coming in the fall.

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