Georgetown Park angels seek to enliven mall

Photo by Photo Courtesy of Heidi Kallett
Georgetown Park shop owners look to improve the mall's performance.
Georgetown Park shop owners look to improve the mall's performance.

By CAROL BUCKLEY
Current Staff Writer

If Hallmark made retail-themed holiday specials, the plot might look something like this: An oft-derided shopping mall, doing poorly despite its fabulous location, doesn’t have much in the way of holiday spirit -- no Santa to bring in the kids, and little besides poinsettias for decoration. The darkness of shuttered shops cancels the twinkle of the surviving merchants, and locals shun the once-popular spot.

Enter a trio of female entrepreneurs -- let’s call them angels -- eager to spread a little holiday magic and boost everyone’s bottom line in the process.

But this is no soft-focus television movie; it’s a story unfolding right now at the Shops at Georgetown Park. Business owners (and friends) Kassie Rempel of Simply Soles, Heidi Kallett of The Dandelion Patch and Stephanie Fornash Kennedy of Fornash have joined forces to breathe new life into the 1980s structure.

And the trio has chosen not harp-plucking heavenly hosts as their inspiration, but cultural icons from the era when the mall was new: Charlie’s Angels, meet Georgetown’s Angels.

The year has been a busy one for the Shops at Georgetown Park, which went to auction this summer. One advantage of the sale to a New York-based firm (which brought in Virginia-based Vornado to manage the mall) was the curtain call on a years-long legal battle between mall developer Herb Miller and Georgetown-based competitor Anthony Lanier.

That wrangling had left merchants uncertain and redevelopment plans on the sidelines. But as new owners Angelo, Gordon & Co. get their bearings, the status quo has largely held for shop owners, say the entrepreneurs.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Kennedy, who runs a wholesale business as well as a women’s clothing-and-accessories retail operation out of her Georgetown Park storefront. A Georgetown resident who has been in the mall since 2002, Kennedy has seen it decline as her own business has grown -- most visibly last year when Oprah Winfrey selected a Fornash scarf as one of her “favorite things.”

“I personally got to experience the Oprah effect,” Kennedy said with a laugh.

Kennedy may be accustomed to the mall’s lacking foot traffic, but Rempel and Kallett are experiencing their first holiday season at Georgetown Park -- and it’s an eye-opener, said Kallett.

“I’m right where I projected I would be,” she said. Unfortunately, that means her Georgetown store has performed only 20 percent as well as her other locations did in their first quarters.

But Kallett, who got a recent nod in the Washington Business Journal as a “Woman Who Means Business,” said she’s still glad she made the decision to locate one of her four area gift-and-bridal shops in the mall. When she goes to D.C. bridal shows in the new year, it’ll be a huge advantage to have a local address to offer brides, said Kallett, who estimates that her other locations have captured 10 percent of the Northern Virginia market for wedding invitations.

It was over a celebratory meal for Kallett’s new storefront that the “angels” were born. Venting about the mall’s issues wasn’t enough for the entrepreneurs. “We can’t just sit here and complain,” Kallett recalled thinking.

Each is kept busy by her own business, but the trio has managed already to alert their merchant neighbors, mall management and the Georgetown Business Improvement District to their new initiative -- which comes complete with a Charlie’s Angels-inspired poster and logo.

And they’ve taken one step toward their ultimate goal: bringing the Georgetown-resident shopper back to the mall. A mailer went out in November to neighbors of the mall, and there’s been some traffic thanks to that, say the business owners.

But look out for more angel activity in the new year, said Simply Soles’ Rempel, who offers her shoe designs -- including one featured in InStyle magazine this month -- out of two storefronts and has a significant online presence as well. “We’ll work with the owners to have a spring event to draw traffic,” she said. So far, she said, mall management has been supportive -- but has not offered financial assistance to the angels’ marketing effort.

Rempel said she hopes the year will also bring information from the mall’s new ownership about what redevelopment scheme it will pursue. But a year is a long time in retail, she noted. “That’s why we want to find ways to improve the mall now.”

But just as the original angels were always left guessing by the cryptic Charlie, this trio has to wonder what the future holds for the mall and their storefronts. “I really hope [the owners] come back with a plan that’s strategic and thoughtful,” said Kallett. “I just hope it’s not three years from now.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15 print edition of The Georgetown Current newspaper.