Post-pandemic push could fill offices and reignite retail
Bermuda’s flagship shopping centre, The Washington Mall, is staging a comeback.
The commercial property’s owners, Washington Properties (Bermuda) Limited, are upbeat, expecting significant improvements to commercial demand in the year ahead.
At the height of its powers, the mall boasted more than 50 shop owners over more than 66,000 square feet of retail space, a few restaurants and other food dispensaries, on two levels, together with 138,000 square feet of office space along with five penthouse apartments.
But after languishing, noticeably empty, for the better part of a year, the two-level retail space is being occupied suddenly by new shops, especially on the ground floor. Things are moving so quickly there has not even been time to update the website to close retail offers.
What was largely empty Reid and Queen Street level floor space has suddenly been filled with bustling enterprises, ready to greet a new year of shoppers.
Paul Slaughter, long time director and general manager at Washington Properties (Bermuda) Limited conceded a couple of retailers from the upper level relocated to the lower level to fill out the numbers.
But he noted: “They are trading much better on the lower level and I think they are both very happy, having found far more foot traffic.
“Also their location is at the cross roads between Reid Street, Washington Lane and the Windsor Mall interface.”
But he sees far more good news ahead, arising out of elevated activity leading up to Christmas.
He said: “We had 11 pop-up stores during the Christmas period. Some were just seasonal pop-ups and they were scheduled to close at the end of December or in January.
“But two are opting to convert to full time and we have five new tenants starting in January. And beyond that, we also have a few active enquiries, as well. So, there is definitely a lot more interest in retail space.”
There may very well be a good reason for increased interest. Analysts largely believe western society is fully emerging from the horrific COVID-19 pandemic.
Even though there remains active strains, new threats as the virus continues its path of mutation, there is an increasing societal push toward finding a level of normalcy after an eternity of cowering in fear – even if it was justifiable.
Many businesses, some just barely hanging on, want their employees back on the job, and for many that means back in the office – and for Bermuda, that means back in the city.
Mr Slaughter admits he sees a community ready to move on: “There is a difference in the amount of office tenants who were working from home through Covid. They haven’t all returned, but more office workers are returning to the city. You can tell that, because it is back to those times when it can be busy, particularly in the restaurants and food aisles.
“You can’t always see that with the retail sales figures. The September figures came out recently, but that’s the September figures coming out in December.
“I feel like when the December figures come out, we might see there was a big improvement on what was published in September. I think some parents were holding back on school supplies. Even the voucher programme designed to help spending didn’t come out early enough for the school year start.”
But the good news in retail for Washington Properties is not their only good news.
In fact, Mr Slaughter shares the hopefulness he hears from the owners, because prospects for the company’s office rentals are also on the rise.
He definitely feels there is all around more cheerfulness in the air about 2023: “We are very optimistic on the office rentals at the moment. We’re actually doing quite well with office space. We have had a couple of new tenants sign up recently. We’ve had quite a few renewals and our rental rates are performing quite well, compared to other buildings around Hamilton.
“Look, 2020 was the worst of the years, 2021 wasn’t bad. And in 2022, we had a few issues but we think we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, now.
“The owners are enthusiastic about reinvesting in the property.
“We completed the re-tiling of the mall last summer. We’re now looking at replacing some of the front ramps. We did a couple of them on Washington Lane, replaced doors, rearranged access and put in a handicap ramp for more accessibility. We have more projects for the coming year.”