Stores and restaurants have been steadily closing at Richland Mall since the end of the Christmas holidays, but mall manager Kandace Menning said the departures are part of a plan to create more room for two of the mall’s more popular retailers.

Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works will relocate to temporary locations in the mall while crews expand their regular sites. Meanwhile, Menning said she is poised to sign a deal with a new tenant for the 26,000 square feet that went vacant when Forever 21 relocated to Central Texas Marketplace.

Forever 21 placed one of its new concept stores called F21 Red in the former Sports Authority building.

A total of eight retailers and dining establishments have left the mall in less than three months. Most had expiring leases, and the departures do not necessarily paint a gloomy picture, Menning said. She said comings and goings are commonplace in retail and in the mall, which enjoyed a 97 percent occupancy rate when the year ended and should approach that figure again when new leases are signed and the relocations are complete.

The Best Buy Mobile store in the mall did not renew its lease, and Bath and Body Works will use that space starting April 7 while its existing store undergoes remodeling and expansion into the now-vacant Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory location. Work will last about 120 days and produce 800 additional square feet for one of the most popular retailers in the mall, Menning said.

Christi Farmer, a supervisor at Bath and Body Works, said the expansion will allow the Waco store to carry the White Barn line of items for the home, including candles, wallflowers and essential oils. White Barn merchandise typically is found in larger Bath and Body Works locations, “and now we’re getting it,” Farmer said.

The extra space will also allow the store to add the C.O. Bigelow line of products primarily for men, she said.

Victoria’s Secret, meanwhile, reportedly will use its extra room to showcase its “Pink” line of apparel.

Menning said the loss of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory is sad.

“How often do you get just a really nice, really good chocolate candy shop?” she said.

Subway closed its sandwich shop when its lease expired, but Menning said that was understandable considering the number of Subway locations in Greater Waco.

Kitchen Collection, which sold cooking items and small appliances, also bid farewell to the mall when its lease expired.

“That was a nice use to have because they were different, like Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory,” Menning said.

But the vacancy has proven fortuitous. Victoria’s Secret has taken the space while its original location receives a 2,000-square-foot expansion made possible, in part, by the departure of Regis Salon, which chose not to renew its lease.

Gordon’s Jewelers pulled the plug on its operation in Richland Mall when its lease expired, but the Kay Jewelers store in the mall has targeted the Gordon’s space for a relocation, Menning said.

“Let’s just say that the owners of this mall have a plan, and customers just need to keep coming back and watching as the transformation develops,” she said. “Those who have noticed the store closings should recall that we did the same thing 10 years ago, when we were making space for Forever 21.”

The move of Forever 21 from the mall to Central Texas Marketplace, the sprawling shopping center at Interstate 35 and West Loop 340, represents the latest of several defections.

The mall also has lost to the marketplace a Kirkland’s store that sells home accessories, the Gap clothing store, the Old Navy clothing store and James Avery Jewelry.

Best Buy occupied a building on an outparcel at Richland Mall before relocating to the I-35 entrance at the marketplace.

Menning said she does not lose sleep over stores moving to Central Texas Marketplace.

“It’s not annoying. It’s just part of doing business,” Menning said. “It might be more sad than annoying.”

The mall announced new arrivals of its own last year, with the list including H&M, which took 21,000 square feet next to Forever 21; francesca’s, which sells women’s dresses, shoes and accessories and took space next to Victoria’s Secret; and Earthbound Trading Co., which sells clothing, home accessories and gift and novelty items.

Austin Five, a women’s clothing store, moved into the former Kirkland’s space, and the departure of James Avery Jewelry allowed the mall to create more room for Bath and Body Works.

Donna Zemanek, 65, of Hewitt, noticed the closings at Richland Mall on a recent visit and was concerned about her favorite shopping destination in Greater Waco.

“I work in Dallas, so I don’t shop much at the mall, but when I do go there, I want my favorite stores to be there,” Zemanek said. “I’m talking mainly about Dillard’s, Victoria’s Secret, Hallmark and Bath and Body Works, although I will look at other stores.”

She said she prefers the mall setting to the marketplace and walking the sidewalks from store to store.

“I would love to see the mall get a restaurant, especially a cafeteria, as well as a bookstore and a shoe store,” she said.

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