Kempner: Why Atlanta’s best mall just dumped its flashiest tradition

The July 4th fireworks at Atlanta’s Lenox Square mall were supposedly the biggest in the Southeast, at least back in the day.

Now that the Buckhead mall has announced that it’s abruptly ending that 57-year-old tradition, we’re left to wonder whether the fireworks show was more smoke than fire.

Because, otherwise, why would you kill such a thing?

It supposedly drew hundreds of thousands of people at its peak. Most businesses, particularly those in the hard-hit retail industry, gobble up any shred of feel-good community attention they can get.

But Buckhead Coalition president Sam Massell told me increased fireworks competition and unimpressed retailers apparently sparked the show’s undoing.

Intowners with even just a semi-high vantage point can see multiple Independence Day fireworks lighting up the sky, Massell pointed out.

Which makes Lenox’s show less special, I guess. I imagine it also creates a never-ending race to put on the coolest display to keep up with rivals.

“They’ve proliferated like rabbits,” the former Atlanta mayor said.

Massell, who was quoted in the mall’s press release being supportive of Lenox’s July 4th changes, said he also was told by people attached to Lenox that some of the mall’s tenants didn’t want to continue the fireworks and “felt there were other ways they could entertain the public that would be mutually beneficial.”

Ahh, “mutually beneficial.” Apparently the crowds didn’t necessarily turn into big sales for all retailers.

And Massell told me attendance had been receding.

I wouldn’t be surprised. Competition for consumer time and attention is increasingly intense. That’s the case whether your outlet is a restaurant, a newspaper, a baseball team or a mall.

A ‘partnering’ of rivals

Lenox’s leaders and its owner, Simon Property Group, aren’t saying much on this issue. They declined to expand beyond a recent announcement about “partnering” with a competing fireworks display at downtown’s Centennial Olympic Park, put on by the Georgia World Congress Center Authority.

The GWCCA said Lenox is donating $25,000 this year. Last year, the downtown event cost (brace yourself) over $185,000. The tab was covered by the park’s budget and a Coke sponsorship. (Thank you, fizzy folks.)

Robin Suggs, Lenox’s general manager, was quoted in a press release as saying that with the change “we can deliver an even better experience for everyone involved and provide much needed operational relief to the City of Atlanta during a very busy holiday.”

I asked a spokeswoman for the city whether it had sought such “relief.” She emailed me that, “This was an independent decision by the mall.”

Lenox said it still will host the start of the massive AJC Peachtree Road Race on Independence Day morning, and that it will incorporate as-yet unspecified “additional patriotic activities.”

Fireworks weren’t a passing endeavor at Lenox.

Behind the front desk in the mall’s management office are three photos: one of Lenox under construction in the 1950s, one of the farm that had been there earlier and one of fireworks bursting over the mall.

When I used to go to the Lenox show, it was always jam-packed. We’d park far away, then march down Peachtree like it was the road to Damascus.

Lenox, sister to the smaller but even swankier Phipps Plaza across the street, often acted like it was better than everyone else. Which I guess it pretty much was — and still is — if you’re comparing it with other malls that aspire to fishhook your cash, credit, debit and mobile wallet.

Mall of many facelifts

Lots of retail players are hurting these days. But Lenox, the mall of a thousand facelifts, still looks unwrinkled.

People in the commercial real estate business inevitably cite it as proof that some can thrive in the besieged mall industry.

“This mall kills it. This is one of the best malls in the country,” said Pierce Mayson, who I met eating in the Lenox food court. He happens to work for a shopping center broker nearby.

His colleague, Scott Tiernan, suggested places like Lenox don’t need the draw of fireworks as much as “the C malls.” (In the hierarchy of grading mall quality by sales per square foot, Lenox is rated A++ by real estate research firm Green Street Advisors. Of more than 1,000 malls in the nation, fewer than 40 tracked by the firm have that highest quality rating.)

Still, Mayson told me he was surprised by Lenox’s fireworks decision. “If you live in Buckhead, that’s where everybody goes.”

Tom Austin, a banking attorney who lives nearby, had a similar take.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s an integral part of Atlanta’s celebration of Independence Day.”

“If you were the owner of a mall as large as theirs, one would think you would do something for public relations to give back to the community.”

Ultimately, I suppose, everybody has to consider the bottom line. Even Lenox.

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