By Robbie Owens

OAK CLIFF (CBSDFW,COM) – Dallas’ Southwest Center Mall has struggled since shoppers have fled to newer, suburban destinations.

Now, after surviving bankruptcy and years of a tarnished public image — the Oak Cliff area mall is in the midst of a jaw dropping revitalization, by catering to the community that surrounds it.

“Why would we not embrace who we are?” asks mall manager Lisa Long. She was brought in to steer the troubled shopping center through bankruptcy in 2008, then stayed on to help turn it around. Given a free reign, Long turned to innovative ideas like courting companies that cater to urban and minority customers; turning the mall’s empty spaces into incubators for small businesses.

“We didn’t check your credit. We didn’t ask for business plans or references, we actually gave you the opportunity to do a short term lease, with a security deposit and first month’s rent. That’s unheard of!” Long is extremely proud of the fact that the mall is making business ownership affordable in a community that desperately needs to keep more dollars close home. “You can own a business in this mall for $500 a month.”

What Long calls ‘out of the box’ thinking is now how mall operators do business. And it’s worked. Southwest Center has signed 26 new tenants since January and is now 80 percent occupied.

“It speaks for itself,” says Marenza Roberts. “The mall has really turned around, it really has.”

Roberts took Long up on her small business offer and rented a cart to open his custom fragrance business. It’s taken off and he now has three locations.

“It was a blessing to be able to have a business, provide for your family and give back to the community. It’s just an awesome blessing.”

The community connections convinced MJ’s Beauty Academy to invest in locating their flagship technical school at the mall. But, co-owner Marci Jackson admits that the sisters had some reservations.

“I’ll be honest with you, it did scare us,” says Jackson, who owns the business with her four sisters. “Because we’re just like anybody else. We would pass through the mix master there and we had not come into Southwest Center Mall since it was Red Bird and had not come in to visit and see what was going on. But, when we were invited in, we came in and it was just a good fit.”

That’s in spite of the fact that a technical school is not a typical mall tenant.

‘It’s secure, it’s safe, it’s clean,” added sister Nicole Washington. “Everybody’s friendly, people come out with purpose here, and they love that we’re here.”

The sisters, who inherited the business from their late mother, Margaret Jackson, say staying in and supporting the community is what she would have wanted.

And mall managers say they are working with the community to make sure the revitalization continues. 24/7 security and increased police presence has helped to address safety concerns. Now, they just need to make sure everyone knows that the mall is still open for business.

“We bring every kind of event free of charge, and we have all those people take back to their sphere: come see the property,” says Long. “It’s safe, it’s open and it’s thriving.”

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