Forget kayaking and hiking. On any given weekend, it seems as if Maine's biggest attraction is the Maine Mall, a 1.2 million-square-foot regional built on a former pig farm 33 years ago.
The Maine Mall, acquired last October by General Growth Properties for $270 million at cap rate of 6.1 percent, is the largest in the state, far surpassing the Bangor Mall two hours to the north. In fact, the next biggest shopping center is Simon Property Group's Burlington Mall — nearly two hours to the south, in eastern Massachusetts.
This lack of competition has given the Maine Mall a captive audience, evidenced by the perennially crowded parking lots. Anchored by Macy's, Filene's, Sears, JCPenney and Best Buy, the mall draws an average 30,000 shoppers a day — not bad for a state with just a million residents.
And it does so without a lot of bells and whistles. Shoppers won't find the cosmopolitan trappings of Boston's Copley Place — just a convenient venue for buying back-to-school clothes and lunch at the food court. There isn't even a movie theater. And, while Macy's is renovating its interior, its exterior looks like it comes straight out of a retrospective of early mall anchor styles.
What the mall does have is location: It's in the heart of Southern Maine, the most densely populated part of what remains a desolate state. The Maine Mall is six miles from downtown Portland, just off Interstate 295 and the Maine Turnpike. That means Mainers, accustomed to long drives, can reach it from most of the state's more heavily populated areas in two hours or less.
As Southern Maine's population has grown, so has development within a few miles of the mall. After the arrival of a Wal-Mart about a mile away, Maine Mall Road filled in with a Circuit City, a Christmas Tree Shops and a Michael's. Strip centers popped up on three sides of the mall; their current tenants include Dick's Sporting Goods, TJ Maxx and a Hannaford Bros. supermarket.
The latest retail is Maine Crossing, a lifestyle center less than a mile to the north anchored by Old Navy and Target.
The growth has brought huge changes to a once bucolic area. In a state where traffic jams are rare, they can be found with some regularity on Maine Mall Road. And the neighborhood surrounding the mall contains more stop lights than anywhere else in the state — though admittedly that isn't many.
Whether the mall can continue its dominance is unclear. After languishing as a retail backwater for so many years — L..L. Bean and the Freeport outlets being the exception — Maine is finally drawing retailers' attention.
Newton, Mass.-based Packard Development, which developed Maine Crossing, plans to build additional lifestyle centers in Portland, Augusta and Biddeford in the next two years. Lowe's plans to challenge long-time Maine presence Home Depot with three new stores. Kohl's also is reportedly eyeing a Maine site.
So Maine's reputation as under-retailed seems to be ending. While the newcomers may do well, they'll have hard time beating the deal that Maine Mall builder Julian Cohen got back in the late 1960s: He bought the first 22 acres of the site for $100 an acre.
Location: Six miles from downtown Portland
Size: 1.2 million square feet
Owner: General Growth Properties
Anchors: Macy's, Filene's, Sears and JC Penney