ANTIOCH -- The owner of Somersville Towne Center is making a push to boost sales by appealing to the region's growing Latino population with more family-friendly events and ethnic retailers.
Macerich Co. is putting $250,000 into its promotional budget at Somersville Towne Center off Somersville Road near the Pittsburg/Antioch border -- with the lion's share going toward the Latino marketing campaign.
That amount is more for marketing than in recent years, said Sharon Cross, a company senior general manager. The Santa Monica-based company, whose shopping centers include Walnut Creek's Broadway Plaza, hopes to draw more customers by hosting cultural events and attracting local niche retailers.
"The goal is to try to make the Latino consumer feel welcomed," said Jose Legaspi, president of The Legaspi Co., a Southern California-based commercial real estate and development firm.
Legaspi works with Macerich on a project called Vanguardia, which is aimed at making some of the company's malls more Latino-friendly. Among those malls that have been changed by Vanguardia are Northridge Mall in Salinas and Desert Sky Mall in Phoenix.
Councilwoman Mary Rocha said the mall has always had a high number of Spanish- speaking customers, so they decided to have more Latino-themed events.
"I think some were fearful about how other people would take it, but when it comes to business, if there's any way to increase it, it's worth a shot,"
The interior decor of Somersville Towne Center now includes several piñatas hanging from the ceiling, as well as several strands of colorful paper with designs cut into them, or papel picado. Advertisements in the mall for upcoming events, gift card offers and sales are in both English and Spanish. There is a train ride that circles around the mall for children, along with some stationary rides near the center court.
Legaspi says the company is employing "virtual anchors" at the center court of Somersville Towne Center, or occasional celebrations of the traditional cultures such as Dia de los Muertos, Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Las Madres, or Mother's Day. Mariachi bands play every Sunday afternoon.
A six-week-long talent show competition is also in the works.
"Shopping centers don't create demographics -- they react to demographics. What we're trying to do is make this an inviting place where families want to be here," Legaspi said.
The amount of foot traffic at the Antioch mall has increased since the program started in December, he said. On Sunday, about 50 patrons sat and listened to the mariachis play in the center court of the mall. Many who were there said they enjoyed the mall's experience.
"It used to be you just went from one store to the other. Now, you want to stay a while, go grab a piece of pizza and hang out. I think it's terrific," said Francisco Sanchez of Antioch, who was at the mall with his family.
The next phase of the marketing strategy is to try and bring in more community-focused local retailers to fill some of the mall's vacant spaces, Legaspi said. The key is that current and new merchants find a way to make the Latino community feel welcomed, he said.
There is a sizable niche market in be tapped in the region. The five-mile radius around the mall, which includes Antioch, Pittsburg and some of Bay Point, has a population of just under 153,000, with 34 percent Latino, according to Vanguardia.
"Obviously we're still testing the concept and adjusting. You never really know until you see the reaction," Legaspi said. "There's nothing formulaic; you have to respond to the community."
The 46-year-old mall has seen better days, evidenced by two of its four anchor tenant buildings sitting vacant since Gottschalks and Mervyns both went bankrupt in the late 2000s. Macerich does not own those properties.
Rocha says she hopes a Latino grocery store would go into one of the empty anchor spaces.
The mall underwent a $24 million renovation in 2004, with the bulk of the money going to building the two-story 110,000-square-foot Macy's. Other fixes included replacing parquet floor with tiles, a new paint job and single-stall restrooms with changing tables.
Antioch paid out $1.7 million toward the renovation in hopes of generating $450,000 in annual sales tax; $750,000 in redevelopment funds and a one-time sales tax payment of $950,000.
The mall has struggled to attract popular national retailers, who local retail brokers say are opting to locate in southeast Antioch and Brentwood area.
"(Macerich is) trying to make the center come to life," City Manager Jim Jakel said. "Obviously, we think it's good to see because they recognize that there is a market in the area."
Latino-centric businesses in the area such as Pittsburg's Mi Pueblo Food Center in Pittsburg and other Mexican grocery stores and places of worship with Spanish-speaking services are signs that this project was worth pursuing, Legaspi said.
Maya Cinemas plans to open a new 15-seat theater at Pittsburg's Century Plaza this weekend.
According to the company's website, it locates in areas with "strong moviegoing demographics in Latino-centric, family-oriented communities in underserved urban and rural areas."
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.