Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the July 19 issue of the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal. “Then & Now” is a profile of a past member of the Business Journal’s Forty Under 40 class.
The Northwest Arkansas Mall in Fayetteville will celebrate 50 years in business next year. The ownership groups have come and gone, but Jeff Bishop has been a near-constant presence at one of Arkansas’ most prominent shopping destinations for three decades.
Bishop went to work there in August 1991 as a technical specialist, dealing with the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems. In January 1993, he became the mall’s operations manager, and the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal recognized him as a Forty Under 40 honoree in 2004.
In May of the following year, Bishop left the mall for Benton County. He was hired to manage the 79-acre Beau Terre Office Park in Bentonville, the region’s largest office park with 35 buildings totaling 385,000 square feet. Back then, as it remains today, it housed offices primarily for vendors doing business with Walmart Inc. Behringer Harvard Funds of Dallas was the property owner.
Bishop said an opportunity came to return to the mall in the fall of 2007 as the property’s senior general manager, a job he’s held ever since.
“Three decades have gone by fairly quickly,” he said during a recent interview.
Including his stint at Beau Terre, Bishop estimates he’s worked for 10 companies or third-party management firms during the past 30 years, just about all of them while employed at the mall. The 110-acre property along U.S. Highway 71 sold for $150 million to a trio of Northwest Arkansas investors in 2006. The property reverted to a bank in 2011 to avoid an imminent foreclosure.
Three New York-based investment groups — Namdar Realty Group, Mason Asset Management and CH Capital Group — paid $39.5 million for the property in January 2016.
“I find myself with 30 years of professional experience, and I’ve never left Northwest Arkansas,” Bishop said. “A lot of the companies I’ve worked for I could call today for references or conversations. I’ve met many people that typically you’d have to hit the road or make several moves. That’s kind of how it works in this industry.”
Bishop said the mall’s occupancy rate has historically trended above the industry average. That was challenged in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were basically shut down,” Bishop said. “Even though the state didn’t require [closing] of retail establishments, we had guidance from New York [owners], and we followed those best practices.”
Bishop said only a handful of stores remained open last year, and the mall operated at reduced hours for several months.
“There were two or three restaurants in the food court, a couple of national retailers and a couple of local stores; everyone else closed,” he said. “It was a challenge. From a rent perspective, we suffered greatly. But that wasn’t just here. That was landlords across the country in all commercial real estate sectors.”
Bishop didn’t offer financial specifics, only that the rent loss was very impactful. He said the mall’s health is undoubtedly more robust this year.
“It’s safe to say that we or anyone else in our industry never dealt with a situation like [COVID] before,” he said. “But, as we get further and further away from 2020, we see more people vaccinated, we see more and more foot traffic and stores open.”
In 2006, Pinnacle Hills Promenade opened, ending the Northwest Arkansas Mall’s exclusive claim as the region’s only mall. Having a competitor in Rogers also challenged the mall’s high occupancy level. Fifteen years later, both remain viable, but the same can’t be said for the mall industry nationally.
“What we’ve realized is that simply put, we are over-retailed in this country; considerably over-retailed,” Bishop said. “National retailers are in the midst of right-sizing their footprints. If an operator used to operate in 11,000 square feet, if they’re even around now, it’s a good bet they are in half that space or less.”
Bishop said the Fayetteville mall is also evolving as it approaches its 50th birthday, noting various uses to develop the property’s expansive parking lot potentially.
Whatever the mall’s future holds, Bishop is likely to be involved.
“It’s hard to say what’s next,” he said. “I’ve always had my ear to the pavement for opportunities, but Northwest Arkansas is a pretty compelling place to live and work. I’ve looked at other opportunities around the country, but nothing has grabbed me like this place.”