Will Enthusiasm for New Food Businesses on U.S. 98 North Renew Interest in Lakeland Square?

Shaina Day was counting down the days until Krispy Kreme opened in north Lakeland on July 27. The traditional glazed doughnuts at the popular doughnut shop were calling her family’s name.

Krispy Kreme joins two other new food establishments, Arby’s and Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux, on U.S. 98 North, where Toys R Us lived for 30 years.

The three new outparcels, visible from the busy highway, are bringing a renewed energy to that corridor.

“Bringing three new food places to the north side brings that area back to life,” Day said. “Once Toys R Us closed up, that whole front part of the mall looked like it was dead. The empty building and overgrown parking area just made it look bad.”

Three new businesses in a row: Krispy Kreme, Arby’s, Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux

Day, 42, a north Lakeland resident, said the new establishments also have drawn her to Lakeland Square Mall more than she normally would go.

“You have two very well-known, established places and then a new one with a type of food we don’t have – not to mention they have nice, open parking lots so you can actually see back to the mall area and that the mall is back there. They have brought us to the mall more already.”

Local business leaders are hoping that Day is not alone in her renewed interest in that area.

Ashley Cheek, vice president of business development for the Lakeland Economic Development Council, said she is excited that both Walk-On’s and Krispy Kreme used Lakeland to debut prototypes of their stores. Krispy Kreme’s store has a baking-view window, drive-through, online ordering, and indoor and outdoor seating.

Walk-On’s in Lakeland is the franchise restaurant’s first smaller prototype to include a long open bar, covered patio area and outdoor big-screen TVs, with seating for about 230 people.

“This is exciting for that corridor,” said Cheek, noting that Lakeland/Winter Haven is the second fastest-growing metropolitan statistical area in the U.S. “It is also a testament that Lakeland is just really growing. It is an honor that these retailers chose Lakeland for their prototype stores. There will be more of this that we will continue to see.”

Krispy Kreme’s drive-through lines show no sign of waning, even going into week three since its opening.

“It makes us beyond happy to know our delicious and awesome doughnut experience is bringing so much joy to the community,” said Ernie Papio, Krispy Kreme district manager. “While we can’t speak directly to how interest in the new Krispy Kreme location has affected surrounding stores, we hope it’s been nothing but positive. We’re excited about this new location, so we hope others are feeling that excitement as well.”

In addition to Walk-On’s, Arby’s and Krispy Kreme, Culver’s will join the landscape in north Lakeland later this year.

Cory Skeates, president of the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce, said he is encouraged by these new businesses.

“This is exciting to see,” Skeates said. “I am hopeful that this influx of business is going to help (the mall) in what they are going to do. I know malls nationwide are trying to reinvent themselves. I’ve been watching nationwide.”

While many are delighted about these new dining opportunities, no one is necessarily refuting the longtime death-of-indoor-malls theory. Though there is only one anchor-store vacancy right now, several popular anchor stores and department stores at the 890,000-square-foot mall have closed over the last decade: Dillard’s in 2012, Sports Authority in 2016, Macy’s in 2017 and Sears in 2018. Toys R Us, a mall outparcel, closed its 30,000-square-foot in 2018, as part of its company liquidation.

Officials from Brookfield Properties Retail Group, which owns Lakeland Square Mall, did not respond to media requests regarding renewed interest in the mall and newly opened stores in the mall.

According to the International Council of Shopping Centers. U.S. indoor mall vacancy rates will peak at just under 9% in 2021. Lakeland Square Mall, which has ranged from 83 store to 92 stores over the years, appears to have at least two large spaces currently available for lease in addition to the anchor spot. The vacancy trend, the council says, is accelerating as a result of traditional mall tenants opening stores in off-mall locations. One local example is Old Navy’s exodus from the mall to across the street at Lakeland Park Center.

Katie Schmid, 46, a north Lakeland resident, said she rarely shops at Lakeland Square Mall, which opened in 1988, but could be enticed back with a reinvigorated mall.

“It’s a shame what the mall has become,” Schmid said. “I’ll drive to Brandon or International Plaza first. There are no good stores left.”

Schmid said she’d love to see a store like Nordstrom find a home here.

“Lakeland is booming. Florida is booming. Real estate sales are insane,” Schmid said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to draw more department stores.”

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