Lake County's only mall, Via Port in Leesburg, is showing signs of life again thanks to Fun Zone, a combination arcade, bowling alley, restaurant/ bar and party room the mall's newest owner installed in part of a former Target.
Without any advertising, several hundred people at a time were playing, eating, and drinking in Fun Zone over the past couple of weekends. Even on Wednesday afternoon on Veteran's day it had an estimated 100 adults and children playing pool, bowling, and playing video arcade games..
"And the party room is staying booked, " said Jennifer Glidewell, Via Port's general manager for leasing.
Apparently what the mall needed was something that Lake County residents can't get anywhere else in the county.
"The folks that own the mall realize that's critical," said Michael Rankin, Leesburg's deputy city manager. "It's the only mall in Lake County and the only one in the region with a fun zone. It will lure people from The Villages area over to Mount Dora and Eustis down to Clermont. It is an attraction."
It's been just over two years since Via Port Properties, a Turkish development, bought the down-trodden property. It invested millions in cleaning it up and adding new flooring in some areas as well as a fountain and other cosmetic renovations. It also added a startlingly tall video sign out front. But it wasn't until recently that the vitality began to return.
"National retailers, who wouldn't even have a conversation with us a few years ago now are calling us," said Glidewell. "It's like they are watching what we are doing."
She said several national retailers are considering moving to the mall but, since no deals are final she wouldn't identify them.
There is a lot of interest in the mall's handful of undeveloped outparcels, Glidewell said. But the owner is being picky about who to sell the outparcels to. "We want to get the right fit," she said.
Meanwhile, the activity in the Fun Zone is spilling out into the main mall. Customers are riding stuffed animals up and down the corridors and there's a train circling through as well.
Even more additions to the Fun Zone are in the works. With the first 30,000 square feet built out the second phase with 57,000 square feet is being discussed.
"We are thinking about the possibilities, from a skating rink, to bumper cars, or concerts," said Glidewell. "There is any number of ideas."