Mall going to town, making a comeback

During its heyday in the mid-1980s, Town Square Port Orchard shopping mall was alive with people enjoying pizza at Godfather’s, picking out cards at Hallmark and getting gardening supplies at Ernst Hardware.

Others browsed The Hub for clothes, picked up prescriptions at Pay ‘n Save and sipped root beer at A&W.

The 43-year-old mall, on Southeast Mile Hill Drive, appeared to thrive until the super-sized Kitsap Mall came along in 1985 in Silverdale. That led to a downturn as potential tenants and shoppers were drawn to the new marketplace.

For decades Town Square – originally called South Kitsap Mall – cycled through owners and fell into disrepair. As the 155,000-square-foot facility deteriorated several shops closed. In early 2021, the commercial development company Zaxium LCC purchased the property for $9.4 million.

Under new ownership, the shopping complex is showing signs of a rebound. In 2022, the facility underwent a $3 million facelift. Renovations attracted new businesses and more customers.

“It used to be, every once in a while, you would see people strolling (the mall). Today, there is a constant flow of people coming in and out. General activity has increased. Look at the parking lot. It was never this full. People are out shopping,” said Town Square property manager Nate Klein, who oversees maintenance and handles leasing.

The two-story mall sports 70 tenants and has a 90% occupancy, Klein said. Grocery Outlet, Ace Hardware and Goodwill are the anchor tenants.

Retail shops make up the first floor. A walk down the main corridor takes one past a variety of offerings including a hot dog restaurant, record store, bookshop, retro gaming shop, tattoo shop and martial arts school.

Upstairs is primarily business offices – though there is a push to locate entertainment outlets on that level, too. “We are kind of shifting the upstairs into an entertainment-focused floor,” Klein said. There is an axe-throwing space on the second level and soon a virtual reality operation will open, where patrons slip on VR goggles and play an array of games.

Diners can partake at the mall’s four restaurants, which include Mexican, Filipino and pizza eateries.

The center has attracted 30 new tenants since the new owners came on board, Klein said.

Store owner perspective

One of the mall’s new businesses is Willow Treats, a pet store that opened in November. The shop is owned by third-generation Port Orchard resident Adam Smith, his wife, a Port Orchard veterinarian, and two others.

For years, Smith had eyed the mall but was gun shy about locating there. “We knew that people did not shop here regularly. It was clear that the former owner wasn’t putting any money into anything. Everything felt broken and run down. As a result, it didn’t give locals a very big reason to come here and do business. It’s been – for lack of a better word – a dead mall for about thirty years,” Smith said. “New energy” shown by current ownership and improvements made to the facility convinced Smith to sign a lease.

“We see the investment they are making in the building as a positive. We have a lot of optimism that the businesses that are coming in at this point are committed to being open more hours than has happened over the past thirty years.”

Smith grew up in mall

“My mom worked at Pay ‘n Save. It was in the space Goodwill is in now. As a kid, I was constantly running up and down these hallways and eating at Godfather’s Pizza, which is now a Mexican restaurant. I have a lot of memories of this mall,” Smith said.

Zaxium is run by Ray Klein (Nate’s father), who lives in Bremerton and Kane Fenner, a Seattle native who resides in Silverdale. Each owner has been in real estate for years and are personal friends.

The company also owns two office buildings in Poulsbo, the Amy Burnett Gallery in downtown Bremerton and a lot on Mile Hill Drive across from the new Port Orchard fire station, Klein said.

Improvements made by Zaxium include transformation of the mall’s façade – replacing a cluttered combination of metal and triangle shapes with sleek, modern decor, Klein said. A front courtyard was added. Parking lot potholes were filled, and the lot resurfaced.

Inside, a hodge podge of colors in the common areas was replaced with a coordinated paint scheme. An updated sound system providing background music was installed. Behind the scenes, renovations include a new roof and plumbing and electrical upgrades.

Future enhancements planned are contemporary flooring throughout the interior and adding seating areas for shoppers.

Nate Klein sees the Port Orchard mall continuing to advance. Brick-and-mortar retail shops are still needed, he said.

“People want to see a friendly face when they shop. It was convenient to order everything on Amazon during COVID but people want to see and touch and feel clothing before they buy it. They want to talk to someone and get a recommendation. The sentiment is the same about eating out. I want to talk to the guy who is making my hot dog,” Klein said.

Growth in South Kitsap is another indication of a brighter future for Town Square. The population in Kitsap has increased 9.2% in the past 10 years, Klein said, adding that 25,000 cars per day travel on Mile Hill Drive, a number that has increased by 1,000 cars annually over the past three years.

Future outlook

“We want to be a destination for food, entertainment and retail shopping. To be a hub for people to come and hang out. People can come here, eat some food, throw an ax, buy a record, or pick up a toy or video game. It’s a full day,” Klein said

Bringing more national chain stores to the mall is one of the next steps owners are taking to grow the mall. Management plans to meet representatives from major retailers – including fast food, coffee and big box retail outlets – at the upcoming International Council of Shopping Centers.

Klein believes continued success will benefit the area. “It provides a sense of community. I think there was a sense of sadness when the mall went into disarray. Now there’s a want by the community to bring it back to where it was in its heyday.”

Mike De Felice/Kitsap News Group
Adam Smith, co-owner of the pet store Willow Treats.

Mike De Felice/Kitsap News Group Adam Smith, co-owner of the pet store Willow Treats.

Town Square Port Orchard mall courtesy photo
An aerial shot of the mall.

Town Square Port Orchard mall courtesy photo An aerial shot of the mall.