Hawthorn Mall redevelopment key for Vernon Hills

Vernon Hills' numerous retail centers will be humming with holiday shoppers in coming weeks, but village officials want to ensure the allure is year round.

With pressure from e-commerce and other factors a constant threat to the village's sales tax revenue - the lifeblood for the town with no municipal property tax - steps are underway to strengthen and expand what perennially ranks among the top retail bases in Lake County.

Plans representing what could be the largest capital investment in Hawthorn Mall since it opened in 1973 will be huge part of any future success.

Mall owner Centennial Real Estate on Tuesday will present village leaders with concepts for a "comprehensive transformation" of Hawthorn to be done in phases.

Initially, the plan would involve building three free-standing, sit-down restaurants on the east side near Milwaukee Avenue. Future work could include demolition of the vacant Sears anchor space and redevelopment of other areas with new retail concepts, as well as multifamily housing or a hotel.

"It's very conceptual at this point," said Joe Carey, assistant village manager and community development director.

For the bigger retail picture, the village this past week hired Melaniphy & Associates Inc., to create a market analysis. The Chicago-based firm, which completed a similar study for Vernon Hills in 2008, will be paid up to $30,000.

When Melaniphy & Associates last studied the village, it was filled with empty "big box" spaces. As a solution, village leaders for the first time offered incentives to companies to fill the holes.

"That's what you have to do today to compete. The communities that aren't aggressive will be left in the dust," said Melaniphy & Associates President John C. Melaniphy, who also serves as director of economic development in Wheeling.

While that may still be the case, Melaniphy said the variables are now different.

"It's a completely new study," he said of the work estimated to take about 10 weeks. "Certainly, there are a lot of changes since 2009."

Online shopping has transformed brick-and-mortar retailers, he noted, and more than 8,000 stores across the country closed in 2018, with more expected as a result of the Sears bankruptcy.

Melaniphy's retail market study involves a dozen tasks, including reviewing past studies, analyzing e-commerce trends and suggesting ways to temper their impact. The other part of Melaniphy's task will be to identify vacancies and ways to fill them.

However, one constant in any strategy takes precedence.

"Keeping Hawthorn Center mall viable is essential to the entire retail base in Vernon Hills," Melaniphy said.

Strides were made with a $50 million overhaul by the previous mall owner that resulted in a revamped exterior, more restaurants and attractions like Dave & Buster's and AMC Hawthorn 12 theaters.

"It's an evolution," Melaniphy said. "Centennial has to take the next step to enhance those assets."

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  The former Sears store at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills remains vacant. Mall owner Centennial Real Estate will appear before Vernon Hills officials on Tuesday to discuss their plans for the center. Paul Valade/
Rendering of one of the concepts to be considered for redevelopment of a portion of the Hawthorn Mall property in Vernon Hills. Courtesy of Village of Vernon Hills
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