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WALDEN GALLERIA MARKS BIG MILESTONE TODAY FIVE-YEAR-OLD SHOPPING CENTER WILL BE WELCOMING ITS 100 MILLIONTH CUSTOMER

SOMETIME TODAY the 100 millionth customer will walk through the doors of the Walden Galleria, proving that if you build it in a prime location and fill it with an appealing mix of retailers -- they will come.

It's been five years since the ribbon was cut on the glitzy super-regional mall and its pledge to permanently change the face of Western New York retailing.

In the past 60 months, Walden Galleria's developer, the Syracuse-based Pyramid Cos., has clearly lived up to that promise.

"We're extremely pleased, we've been very successful here," said James L. Soos, mall general manager.

"Our goal is to bring in the mix of stores that will continue to make us the dominant retail force in the market. We intend to provide the biggest and best shopping experience," he added.

On its opening day, May 1, 1989, the Walden Galleria shot straight to the top of consumer preference charts, blowing away every other pre-existing mall and plaza by virtue of its prime location, mammoth size and incomparable variety of wares. It also gave Western New Yorkers their first look at upscale stores such as Lard & Taylor, Bonwit Teller, Ann Taylor, Laura Ashley and Williams-Sonoma.

For many shoppers, like Nancy Weigland of the Town of Tonawanda, the Walden Galleria is a dream come true.

"The first few times I came out here I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't in a day dream. This couldn't possibly be here in Buffalo," said Ms. Weigland, a native Buffalonian who became spoiled by a five-year stint in Philadelphia, where there were ample opportunities for upscale purchases.

"I've completely changed my shopping habits since the Galleria opened. I rarely go anywhere else. It's all here and it's all better," she added.

David Riley, of rural Wyoming County, doesn't always make purchases on his infrequent visits to the Cheektowaga mall, but he still enjoys the visit.

"It's a pretty fancy place," Riley said. "A lot of the stuff I see isn't for me, but I still like looking at everything."

Other Galleria converts have found a new retail source by way of the Peace Bridge. Fiona Carroll of St. Catharines, Ont., has abandoned suburban Toronto's shopping malls in favor of a road trip to Cheektowaga.

"It's just a beautiful place and they have stores we don't have in Canada. I love coming down here," she said.

Peripheral development

Galleria officials estimate their gigantic retail attraction lures in some 18 million shoppers annually, generating annual sales of approximately $325 million in the process.

Toronto-based retailer Harry Rosen, whose sophisticated men's furnishings store bears his name, is pleased to be part of the Walden Galleria success story.

Rosen, whose 21 other stores are in Canada, said he considers Cheektowaga a permanent address.

"The Buffalo market hasn't disappointed me," Rosen said.

"I think we're still in the process of ingratiating ourselves to the Buffalo area client and it will take a while longer to achieve our fullest potential, but we are operating a profitable business there."

Lechmere Corp., a housewares retailer, also is satisfied with its decision to set up shop at the mall. William J. Granacki, manager of the anchor store, said coming into the Buffalo market was a smart move. "We're pleased with our overall business here in the Galleria," he said.

The economic power of the mega-shopping center is evident in the scope of peripheral development that's sprouted on property adjacent to the mall. Directly across Walden Avenue has opened a new Wegman's food store and its hardware/home center component, Chase-Pitkin, along with Pier One Imports, Kids-R-Us and the area's first Olive Garden Restaurant.

The Walden-Union corridor also boasts a revved-up retail plaza, a Sun TV Electronics outlet and a soon-to-be built Hampton Inn.

Those developments, all built in the wake of the Galleria, represent nearly $200 million in mall-linked construction.

Land of pink flamingos

All this retail magic has transformed the formerly sleepy, middle-class suburb of Cheektowaga into a trendy shopping destination, which makes Town Supervisor Dennis H. Gabryszak very happy.

"We're no longer the land of pink flamingos. Our public image has vastly improved," Gabryszak said.

While having the town's name become synonymous with a shopping mall might not have been what Cheektowaga's founding fathers had envisioned, town residents seem to be adjusting quite well to their new status, according to Gabryszak.

"I think it gives us a new sense of pride and power. People feel really proud to have this in their town. It's really exciting to watch all the construction and people coming from all over to shop," he said.

The mall and the clusters of retail development that have come in its wake have meant a much-improved property tax base for the town. Between 1988 and 1993, the town has seen commercial construction totaling $157 million, the bulk of which can be directly linked to the Galleria.

Retail cannibalization?

While Cheektowaga experienced just $13 million in new commercial construction from 1985 to 1987, commercial building average $28.8 million between 1990 and 1993.

"Even after the mall itself was built, it's just kept coming. What a great thing for Cheektowaga," Gabryszak said.

While the Galleria has proven to be a fiscal and image gold mine for the Town of Cheektowaga, observers wonder how much of the retail and development activity represents "new" dollars.

If the Galleria had not been built, would those same dollars have gone into other merchants' pockets and other municipal coffers? Maybe the Galleria phenomenon is merely an economic redistribution.

Arun K. Jain, a marketing professor at the University of Buffalo, is among those who worry the Galleria's success comes at the expense of the rest of the Western New York retail community.

"There's no doubt (Walden Galleria) has sucked dollars away from the other malls and lowered their status in the consumer's mind. The Galleria is now the shopping experience against which all others are compared," Jain said.

"If there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you go there," he added, "Consumers have quickly figured out that if you want the best quality and best selection, you must go to the Galleria Mall."

Louis J. Berger Jr, former head of Buffalo's now-defunct L.L. Berger department store chain, looks at the Galleria as the leach that sucked the remaining life-blood out of a once-thriving group of homegrown retailers.

"The big national chains come to town and the little guys get eaten up. They just ate us up and it's just a damn shame," Berger said.

"Ain't competition great?"

In the post-Galleria era, the Western New York retail community is a smaller, leaner, more focused animal. If retailers didn't make changes, they are probably gone.

The Boulevard Mall, in the Town of Tonawanda, which abruptly lost its title as the area's largest and most popular shopping center, has pumped $35 million into eye-catching renovations and construction of a new food court.

One Boulevard Mall merchant, who requested anonymity, said she doubted all that work would have been done if the Galleria wasn't in the picture.

"This place was looking so bad, that some of us were complaining to the mall management. Then Galleria came along, and poof, they're spending big money. Ain't competition great?" she said.

Amherst's Eastern Hills Mall is offering a new, upgraded mix of stores, while McKinley Mall in Hamburg has retooled its line-up of merchants to keep price-conscious residents of the South Towns and rural areas coming.

Jain said the consumer is the ultimate winner of all that retooling.

"(The malls) got their wake-up call and responded. They can't afford to be anything than their best," he said.

For other shopping centers, redecorating and realigning merchants weren't a sufficient cure for the wounds inflicted by the Galleria's success.

The 700,000-square-foot Seneca Mall, in West Seneca, is about to fall victim to the wrecker's ball. Closed after losing much of its already-dwindling customer-base to the Galleria, the 52-acre site is expected to be reborn as home to a new Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Tops Supermarket.

The Galleria's nearest neighbors, AppleTree Mall and Thruway Mall, have also made big changes. AppleTree Mall is now an office complex, while the Thruway Mall, which lost its anchor store AM&A's to Galleria, continues to search for a new identity and a new owner, while battling a 40 percent vacancy rate.

Whether the impact was direct or indirect, it's no coincidence that the roster of Buffalo-based retailers has shrunk dramatically since the Galleria opened its doors.

Conspicuously absent from the list of those alive and well and doing business in the post-Galleria era are: L.L. Berger's, Kleinhans, The Sample Shop and Gutman's.

"While we've seen several interesting new, national stores come in and be successful, we've lost too many old friends," said Patricia O. Rehak, of the Greater Buffalo Partnership.

"You've got to wonder what would have been, if the Galleria never happened," she added.

Ms. Rehak, a vocal advocate for revitalizing Buffalo's downtown retailing district, said the presence of the Galleria has also added to the burden of sparking interest in downtown retail development.

"I think the negatives of downtown are magnified when you compare that retail environment to the relative ease of suburban retailing. It makes our job more difficult, certainly," she said.

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