by Cat Cutillo
Colton Doolen just got a lot closer to realizing his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. In fact, it’s moving in next door.
Doolen is the assistant manager at Game Stop in the Berlin Mall. In July, the mall announced the creation of The HUB, a community-focused concept that designated up to 3,000 square feet of rent-free space inside a vacant storefront adjacent to JCPenney. The space comes complete with free utilities and Wi-Fi. Selected applicants must provide insurance.
The mall says the free flexible space is perfect for artists, performers, makers, teachers, and others needing the space for events, exhibits, meetings, classes, films, performances, mixers, lectures, and other community-driven events. The free space can’t be used to sell products, but users can charge for services and performances. Morning, afternoon, evening, or all-day slots are available for one or more days a week, up to eight weeks at a time.
“This is a pretty neat opportunity for people,” says Mike Rushman, a consultant with Land Strategies the mall hired two years ago in an ongoing initiative to help create a town center. “If you’ve been thinking of having a quilting bee or square dance class and finding space and paying for it has kept you from doing it, here’s the chance for people to try out whatever their dream is.”
Doolen says it’s the perfect way to test the waters on his long-standing dream.
“I was ecstatic. As soon as I heard it, I started instantly planning for what I would do with this,” says Doolen, who immediately submitted an application to host a stand-up comedy night in the space. “I already have everything planned as to where I’m putting my DJ, my chairs, the professional lighting. I have a lot of stuff prepared, and I just can’t wait.”
Lauren Andrews, founder and owner of AroMed Aromatherapy in Montpelier, is also excited about the free space. Andrews just signed a six-month lease in the Berlin Mall and wants to use The HUB space to host bi-weekly information workshops about cannabidiol (CBD) and essential oil therapies.
“CBD is very popular right now, and there’s a lot of curiosity around it. It’s helping a lot of people with their health issues, but there’s a lot of misinformation about it. We want to be a reliable source of accurate information so people can determine whether or not it’s something that could be useful to them,” says Andrews.
Andrews says her Montpelier store can only comfortably fit 10 people at once, and she often has to turn people away during educational offerings. She says The HUB can accommodate large numbers of curious workshop participants.
“I was immediately enthusiastic. People are looking for community and to have accessible spaces where people can come together and do workshops,” says Andrews. “I think our community needs something like that—a place to join, a place to meet.”
Rushman says the mall has received a dozen applications, which will be collected on a rolling basis over the next 12 months. Interests have spanned everything from training sessions for caregivers, a roller derby practice facility, artist and library functions, and tai chi and Zumba classes. He says the mall wants to attract as many new faces as possible.
“It introduces the mall to people who perhaps aren’t familiar with it, and in a way, that doesn’t fit their stereotype of what they think when they think of a mall. And that’s good,” says Rushman.
Gerry Hanifin, who has been the Berlin Mall’s manager for 11 years and has 27 years of mall management under his belt, including mega-malls across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia, says online competition has forced malls across the country to reinvent themselves.
“Your traditional idea of a mall of just retail and a food court is over. It’ll be dead in five years. It’s already dying,” says Hanifin. “You’ve got to find something new with the space. You’ve got an enclosed space. You’ve got plenty of parking. Think outside. What can you do that hasn’t been done before,” says Hanifin, “You’ve got to reinvent, otherwise it’s just going to be dead in the water.”
Hanifin says some malls across the country are building up and adding residential, hotel, and office space. Since Planet Fitness opened in the Berlin Mall last year, bringing 4,000 members, Hanifin says it’s exceeded corporate expectations by over 100 percent.
“It has brought in people I’ve never seen in this mall in 11 years of shopping. That was a big impact on this mall. They’re shopping here. They’re buying their shoes at Olympia Sports and these are folks who never would have come into this place. It’s kind of the same hope,” says Hanifin.
Hanifin says the empty storefront where The HUB will reside has been vacant since February and is one of three current vacancies in the mall.
“It’s tough to lease sometimes. It’s a space toward the end of the mall. So let’s do something that can help the community at no charge,” says Hanifin, who said the other two spaces will be leased by the holidays.
Andrews says she likes the mall’s proximity to the hospital and says the mall is becoming a place where people can go to support their health.
“Planet Fitness being there was a major motivator for me to take a chance and open up there. But The HUB was the cherry on top,” says Andrews.
“There may be people who come to The HUB who do something as a trial run and then decide, ‘Wow, this works,’ and they’ll want to take a kiosk space or tenant space,” says Rushman.
“I think it’s a brilliant use of an empty storefront. I understand what they’re trying to do as far as creating community, and I really want to be a part of it. I want my business to be a part of it,” says Andrews.
And these days, Doolen has found a new spot to spend his lunch time, standing in front of the chain-linked door of The HUB staring into the emptiness, which has become full of possibility.
“You know how often I come up right here during my lunch break, which is what this is, and I just kind of stare, looking, planning, imagining where everything is going to be—just building excitement for myself,” says Doolen. “This is a humongous step in the right direction.”
Applications for and information about The HUB can be found in the Mall Manager’s office, by emailing the
email@example.com, or by visiting theberlinmall.com/hub.