MAYS LANDING — On the Hamilton Mall’s second floor, a vacant store sits dark and empty.
Come May, Ren Parikh pictures a completely different scene.
The 42-year-old entrepreneur is opening a virtual reality lab in the space, where players can strap on headsets and be transported to the streets of Paris or inside a “Fortnite” game.
It’s the kind of reimagining some experts say is needed to revitalize the dying, decades-old shopping center.
“It used to be, people go to the mall just for shopping,” said Parikh, owner of Ideal Institute of Technology, an adult vocational school with offices on the first floor.
But now, he says, that’s changing.
As the mall’s future hangs in the balance, with two of its three anchors closing in the past year, Parikh is one of many thinking of creative ways to breathe new life into the shopping center.
The Atlantic County Economic Alliance, which moved its headquarters into the building, is working to bring esports tournaments to the mall, Executive Director Lauren H. Moore Jr. said.
The idea? Let schools hold competitions in the shopping center, and hopefully draw a younger crowd into the stores as a result.
The organization is partnering with consulting company INGAME Esports, the same group working to get competitions into Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
“There is a real opportunity here for this,” Moore said.
The company agrees and is buying into the mall’s future.
“What we’ve been doing is helping the mall kind of reinvent themselves,” said Anthony Gaud, of Linwood, co-founder of INGAME. “We look at malls as the potential soccer fields of future high school and middle schools sports. … The perfect place to do it is the place designed for social interaction.”
Also in the works is a cooking competition that would net the winner one year of free space in an area that is already empty in the food court. Still in the planning stages, the submissions would be judged by a panel of chefs, celebrities and local dignitaries.
Hamilton Township officials have tried to lend a hand to the mall. Last month, township director Phil Sartorio said he told the mall owners the municipality was willing to designate the shopping center as an “area in need of redevelopment.”
Such a designation would give the township the power to offer tax-abatement incentives for projects done on the property.
“We can work with them as a redevelopment area, similar to what we have done with the racetrack,” Sartorio said in an interview in March, referring to the Atlantic City Race Course, which closed in 2015.
Some new malls — like the American Dream at the Meadowlands, in development since Jim McGreevey was governor — are eyeing even more ambitious amenities.
A Nickelodeon Universe theme park, indoor ski slope and Dreamworks water park are in the works there.
But those looking to transform the Hamilton shopping center can take lessons from other New Jersey malls currently going through a metamorphosis.
At the former Echelon Mall in Voorhees Township, Camden County, stakeholders looked for a different way to attract people.
The mall’s demise began in the early 2000s but worsened after current owner Namdar bought the property in 2015.
The real estate group has neglected the building, township officials say, leaving behind broken elevators and an increasing vacancy rate.
The township responded by investing millions to open new municipal offices there six years ago, and more recently relocating the local library branch.
That was just a starting point though, said Voorhees Economic Development Director Mario DiNatale.
Last year, the township began a now-complete search for a new owner and has threatened to use eminent domain to take the property.
The Planning Board approved zoning easements so potential developers don’t have to seek variances, scrapping restrictive regulations and making more shops allowable.
They then spent $50,000 on an appraisal, redevelopment study, market analysis and title survey. That’s work DiNatale said the buyer would typically be responsible for.
“Towns have to make the investment,” DiNatale said. “Do the legwork for developers.”
Brandywine Financial Services Corp., the new developer, was selected last September, with plans to replace the mall with 180 high-end townhomes, bowling alleys, restaurants and other retail entertainment.
Where others see stagnation, VR lab owner Parikh sees the Hamilton Mall’s future as a destination for entertainment.
“I think the community, as a county, need innovation in the mall,” he said.