Sunday, March 11, 2012 | 3 a.m.
The Boulevard Mall
When the Boulevard mall opened in 1968, it was the first of its kind in Southern Nevada and quickly drew crowds of shoppers on weekends.
The east valley mall was a hit. Management even buried near Macy’s a 100-year time capsule, reflecting a vision of longevity.
Time, population growth, competition and the recent recession have all but made those days of the Boulevard mall as the hot spot in town a distant memory, much like the items stuffed into that time capsule.
But today, the mall at Maryland Parkway and Twain Avenue is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the influences of a handful of Hispanic-related community organizations — the Mexican Patriotic Committee, the Hispanic Museum of Nevada and the Mexico Vivo Dance Studio and Cultural Arts Center. Now, Boulevard mall is a hub of Las Vegas’ Hispanic community.
Management at the Boulevard mall recognized how the demographics of East Las Vegas had changed in the past four decades and how the economy has suffered over the past four years. It altered its philosophy to help bring about changes at the mall.
Instead of the grandeur of the mall and its well-known anchor stores as the main attractions, mall management has worked to move in the community organizations, to bring back the traffic and vibrancy.
“There has been a demographic shift that is very typical of a lot of Southwestern cities,” said Ric Jimenez, the mall’s general manager. “It was once a cosmopolitan, upper-middle-class area in the ’60s and ’70s when the mall was built. Because of urban sprawl, people started leaving the core of the city for bedroom communities like Green Valley and Summerlin. There was an ethnic shift, and socioeconomically, we are a lot different now.”
Jimenez added that the mall’s trade area, a five-mile radius around the property, is now 45 percent Hispanic.
In recent years the mall has become a site for popular Hispanic community events, including hosting an “American Idol”-type reality show, “La Academia,” produced last year by TV Azteca; Fiestas Patrias, the celebration of Mexico’s independence; and the Cinco de Mayo festival.
Besides the demographic changes, the retail market also has shifted underneath the mall. Retail vacancies in Las Vegas have tripled since 2006 and showed little improvement in 2011, according to a report from local advisory firm Applied Analysis.
Vacant shops still pepper the linoleum halls of the mall, and one of Boulevard’s anchors, Dillard’s, closed in 2008. It has yet to be replaced.
“With vacancies, we look at them as opportunities to become more relevant in the community,” Jimenez said. “People are coming to this mall now that haven’t come to the mall in years, and they are seeing what we have to offer.”
The first community organization, the Mexican Patriotic Committee, moved into the mall in October 2011. Then, in early 2012, both the Hispanic Museum of Nevada and the Mexico Vivo Dance Studio and Cultural Arts Center took over vacant spots in the mall.
Jimenez said working with community organizations and events was a philosophy the Boulevard mall’s parent company, Rouse Properties, has embraced. Management also is talking to more community organizations, not just Hispanic ones, about space in the mall. Jiminez said the mall could see more new tenants this year.
The Mexican Patriotic Committee is not a typical shopping mall tenant.
“Our main goal is to work with youth through various programs to give them a better future,” said committee President Marycarmen Ruiz.
The committee offers a variety of afterschool and parents programs, including dance instruction and seminars on domestic violence; alcohol, drug and gang prevention; financial management; and preparing for college. It also puts on major community events, such as the March 24 Spring Festival and Cinco de Mayo festival, both of which will be at the mall.
The Mexican Patriotic Committee began in 1980, but for much of its existence, the organization operated out of the offices of Spanish-language weekly newspaper El Mundo, which was owned by one of the committee’s founders, Eddie Escobedo Sr. Ruiz wanted to find a permanent location where the Mexican Patriotic Committee could have classes and other events, and she approached the mall management.
“The management really opened doors for us,” Ruiz said. “We are a nonprofit organization, and they recognized our vision and what we are trying to do and worked with us. The management team has been totally supportive and offered a super-discounted rate.”
The small store the committee took over was a former insurance agency that could only be accessed from the mall’s exterior. It had been vacant for five years, Ruiz said.
Chris Connell, a senior sales associate in the retail division of Colliers International, said filling vacancies, even at discounted rents, is a sound strategy as long as the mall operators do not lock themselves into long-term leases.
“Right now I think it’s a function of capturing whatever revenue you can,” Connell said. “Boulevard was hit exceptionally hard in this downturn. Their efforts to increase revenue are smart. Clearly, for the Boulevard mall, given the community they are in, this strategy absolutely makes sense for them.”
Connell added that while retail leasing increased slightly in the fourth quarter of 2011, the market has since softened and Boulevard should not expect a boost from retail shops wanting to fill its vacancies anytime soon.
The shops also have changed with the neighborhood’s demographics. Customers can now get piñatas, Mexican-style candy and quinceañera dresses at Boulevard.
Mexico Vivo Dance Studio and Cultural Arts Center is the latest organization to move in. Founder and director Ixela Gutierrez said she had a much smaller space in downtown Las Vegas, and her new 6,380-square-foot space, while a bit more expensive, has allowed her to offer more programs and provide a performance area for local groups. In July, the dance studio will put on a three-day international dance festival at the mall.
While there is a cost for many of the dance and other classes, the studio also offers a free, weekly dance class for diabetics.
“It has been wonderful,” Gutierrez said of the move. “We have gone from 80 or 90 students to 150, we can store all of our costumes, and all the new activity has added some life to the mall.”
Kenny Ngo, a salesman at the Boulevard mall’s Glamour Nails, agrees.
“It has been really slow for years, and it’s still slow,” Ngo said. “I have seen more people coming through for some of these events and new programs. I think it’s a good idea, and it creates a more positive atmosphere.”
The Hispanic Museum of Nevada contains exhibits from almost every Spanish-speaking country, and many of the works are for sale and come from local artists. The museum has also started live art exhibitions on a regular basis since its move.
Museum volunteer Iris Guzman-Morales said she lived in Las Vegas in the early ’70s when the Boulevard mall was “the mall” in town.
“I left after that and then came to Vegas in 1987. I thought I’d never go to the Boulevard mall again. I didn’t like what was at the mall, and I thought the prices weren’t right. I didn’t come here for over 20 years.”
Then, Guzman-Morales offered to cover at the museum for the director, Lynette Sawyer, who is a good friend. Guzman-Morales was “reintroduced” to the mall and saw it in a different light.
“I see it as one hand washing the other,” Guzman-Morales said. “Those who never came to the mall to shop have come for the museum and are staying to shop. Those who maybe never went to the museum are coming to the mall to shop and checking out the museum. It’s all very symbiotic, and I think that’s neat.”