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Manchester Center’s owner unveils revamp plan for aging mall

New life for old Manchester mall

Benjamin Nazarian, managing partner of Omninet Capital, the owners of Manchester Center, unveiled planned changes to the aging mall during a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016.
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Benjamin Nazarian, managing partner of Omninet Capital, the owners of Manchester Center, unveiled planned changes to the aging mall during a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016.

Life for Fresno’s aging Manchester Center is about to get a lot better.

The mall owners, Omninet Capital based in Beverly Hills, and Mayor Ashley Swearengin announced on Monday long-awaited plans to transform what was once Fresno’s premier shopping destination into a new unique multi-use property in the heart of the city.

The plans include a new mall entrance, a redesigned facade with signage, a marketplace or “artisan food community” for chefs, food trucks and restaurants, an exterior shopping area and an outdoor events plaza.

There will soon be new tenants too. Among them: Chipotle and The Habit in a new building on Blackstone Avenue, and nearly a handful of local restaurants (so far) in the marketplace – Green’s Family Grill, Med Wraps Cafe, Rocket Dog Gourmet Brats & Brew, and Yummyz Street Treats.

The mall renovation, at Blackstone and Shields avenues, will happen over the course of a few years with the first phase to be finished by spring 2017.

“Let me be clear. I’ve been asked a lot and I want to be clear about this,” said Benjamin Nazarian, Omninet’s managing partner. “This is not ‘if it will happen.’ This is happening.”

Exterior work has already started on the Shields Avenue side of the mall with the expansion of Crescent View West, a charter school for at-risk students. The creamy siding and hints of blue and green color around the school entrance are a preview of what people can expect as the center takes shape, Nazarian said.

“It’s been a long process and we’re very excited to finally be here,” he said. “If you have patience, things do work out.”

In its heyday, the mall was stocked with major retailers. Mayfair Market, Gallenkamp Shoes, F.W. Woolworth and Gottschalks all called Manchester home after the mall opened in 1955.

But over the years, retailers followed new construction north in the city or went out of business. Gottschalks closed its doors in 2009, leaving Sears as the center’s lone retail anchor.

In an effort to fill empty spaces, the mall welcomed Caltrans as its first office resident in 1999. Then, Fresno County’s Workforce Connection, an employment agency, followed in 2001 and the Fresno Adult School in 2005. Artists even took up residence in empty spaces.

Omninet Capital bought the mall five years ago but has been tight lipped for years about its plan to revive the mall. Meanwhile, mall management has worked to relocate office tenants from the west side of the building to the other side as it marketed the property to possible retailers. Nazarian said the process has taken longer than the company anticipated.

The first announcement about Manchester came in April when the city unveiled its plan to restore the Central Policing District into 8,000 square feet of space at the center. The police office is expected to open in less than two weeks.

Nazarian said Monday that the goal is to have retail stores occupy the mall’s first floor and offices on the second floor. The marketplace will be located in the old Gottschalks space. A new outdoor event plaza will be built on the existing parking lot between the marketplace and Regal Manchester Stadium 16 cinemas.

“We already have numerous events here to serve the community,” Nazarian said. “We will continue doing those events, but we need a better place to have it.”

A groundbreaking on Monday signified a critical first step the revitalization project – an 8,000 square-foot building to house Chipotle, The Habit and at least two more retailers.

“I cannot tell you how many times people said ‘you will never get national tenants to come south of Shaw (Avenue),’ ” Nazarian said. “This dispels that myth.”

Ronnie Mack and May Lee, both of Fresno, are excited to hear the renovation news. They stop by the Workforce Connection office almost every other day and do some of their shopping in the mall, but say there are limited options.

Mack hopes for at least one high-end store to come, maybe a Macy’s. Lee would like a Ross, something affordable for families like hers who live nearby.

“If we had stuff here, it would benefit us,” Lee said. “You can come shop and go to Workforce Connection.”

Fresno Council Member Clint Olivier, whose represents central Fresno, thanked Omninet for its investment.

“This is a sign that the tide has officially turned,” Olivier said. Private investment is on its way, new retailers are on their way and it’s because of the visionaries we have.”

BoNhia Lee: 559-441-6495, @bonhialee

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