Lynn Gray has truly come full circle, from attending the grand opening of Holyoke Mall as a newborn to her role as general manager there today. In a career spent in the shopping-center world, she has seen plenty of evolution and a few major challenges as well, the pandemic being the latest and perhaps most daunting. But current customer traffic and interest in available space tell her this is an industry with plenty of life, and she’s passionate about helping individual businesses succeed within it.
When Lynn Gray was two weeks old, her mother packed her up and took her on her very first outing — to the grand opening of Holyoke Mall in 1979, the center where she now works as general manager.
“How cool is that, right?” she asked.
The mall has certainly been a family affair; her mother worked there from its opening as an office manager, and her grandmother would later come on board as a customer-service manager.
“When I was 15, I started at the customer-service desk in the middle of the mall selling gift cards — well, back then it was gift certificates,” Gray recalled. “So that’s how I got into the shopping-center industry.”
It’s been a journey that has taken her across the Northeast and down the East Coast, but mostly at Holyoke Mall and Hampshire Mall, where she was general manager from 2016 until earlier this year, and is still serving in an interim role at the Hadley complex while a replacement is found. And, having been around shopping centers throughout her entire career, she’s seen plenty of evolution in the industry.
“It feels to me very cyclical,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, the 10 years she spent away from Pyramid Management Group, which owns the Holyoke and Hampshire malls, as well as 12 other properties. Between 2006 and 2016, she was with General Growth Properties, taking on various marketing roles, eventually becoming marketing director for the East region.
“I was really focused on the East Coast and got to work with a lot of properties there, from marketplaces to smaller centers to super-regional centers in a variety of different markets. It was funny because, coming back to Hampshire Mall, where my management experience had started, I saw this evolution happening at the properties.”
“When I left them, I had just helped open Target and Trader Joe’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy,” she said by way of explanation — all of them big-name staples at shopping centers across the U.S. at the time.
“It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”
“Ten years later, Best Buy had closed, and we had already replaced them with PetSmart. We were putting in a bowling alley; we were putting in a gym. So I saw the the transition from the early 2000s — from Kmart to Target to a variety of new big boxes coming in — and then, when I came back, I saw that cycle over to the lifestyle components like a Planet Fitness, like a bowling alley and an arcade. It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”
Indeed, that’s the driving evolution in malls today, she went on — a move not necessarily away from retail, but complementing retail with more entertainment, experiences, and dining options.
“There’s been a lot of change even these last few years, and then, of course, COVID happened,” Gray said. “So then you see a little more of that cyclical stuff happening with the big boxes turning over and repurposing them for a variety of uses.”
And it’s not just a local phenomenon, she added. “I get to support leasing for all of our properties, so I’m not just focused on Hampshire and Holyoke; I get to see what’s happening across the Pyramid portfolio and across the industry. We’re seeing more hotels, we’re seeing apartments, we’re seeing shared office spaces in a lot of our properties. So it’s kind of cool to see it’s not just about a shopping center anymore, it’s about creating a lifestyle.”
Coming back to Hampshire Mall as general manager in 2016 was truly a full-circle event for someone who had built a career from the bottom up at the two local Pyramid properties. From her humble beginnings selling gift certificates at Holyoke Mall, she progressed in the mid-’90s to an office-assistant position at Hampshire Mall for a few years, which evolved into a marketing role. She returned to Holyoke in the late ’90s as assistant marketing director, then went back to Hampshire as marketing director before her stint with General Growth Properties.
“When I came back to Pyramid again,” she said of her hiring as general manager there in 2016, “it was like coming home.”
As for the recent evolution in the use of mall space, one that’s especially noticeable at Hampshire Mall, Gray said even individual tenants understand the trend.
“A lot of our partners in our tenant base have really gone out of their way to try to diversify their use,” she noted. “A great example is Pinz. You’re not just there for bowling; there’s also an arcade, there’s food, there’s dart throwing, axe throwing, all kinds of things. It’s about keeping people in these spaces longer, and that’s something we’re offering at all of our properties.”
That’s why both malls now feature a gym, bowling, and arcades, as well as shopping (including some big boxes, like Target, which is also featured at both). “We really are creating a destination for you to find everything you need. It’s creating sort of a downtown feel.”
No longer can mall managers cater only to people who want to stop in, get what they want quickly, and leave, even though there are still plenty of those. It’s about giving them more to do once they arrive and, therefore, more reasons to come in the first place.
“I think people have more choices today,” Gray said. “They have less time, more on their plates, they’re going in a million different directions, and creating a space they’re going to frequent more often because they’re not coming here just for shopping is critical, because it keeps us relevant; it keeps us top of mind.
“They’re not just going to Target to get their essentials, they’re coming here for a day with their family and going bowling, or maybe they’re coming several times a week because they’re visiting the gym. Or they’re having their birthday parties at Altitude,” she went on. “It’s a space that’s far beyond just a shopping destination. They’re coming more often and spending more time because they’re coming for a variety of different uses.”
Hampshire Mall in particular is no stranger to innovation. Gray credited the wisdom of its original owners, who built a shopping center on farmland in Hadley more than 40 years ago. The Route 9 corridor eventually exploded with much more retail, dining, and other amenities, fed by the affluent communities of Amherst and Northampton that bookend it, and, of course, UMass Amherst and other local colleges.
“We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises.”
“Somebody had this idea that putting a shopping center there would be really successful, and it has been,” she said. “It’s very desirable real estate now.”
Still, no one in the shopping-center industry was prepared for the impact of COVID-19.
“The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty, which still resonates with a lot of us,” she said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises. Supporting those businesses, which were hit the hardest during the pandemic, has been something we’ve really tried to put our efforts into.”
That statistic surprises some people, she noted. “Some consider us to be the big-box destination and forget there are so many businesses in this center that are locally owned, here and at Hampshire, and I like to remind people of that. They live in your community, they’re supporting your kids’ schools and sports teams, and they also lease space at a shopping center. It’s not just about the big box and the large retailer.”
The good news, for tenants of all sizes, is that traffic numbers at the malls are up — not just from 2020, but from 2019.
“I think that’s a testament to people itching to get out,” Gray said. “They’ve been missing that in-person connection and getting outside their four walls, and we’ve been able to give them a reason to do that.”
And they’ve been, for the most part, gracious about safety protocols that still fluctuate between communities; in fact, Holyoke Mall currently recommends mask wearing, while Hampshire Mall requires it.
“They want to get out, so they’re going to do what they can to follow the rules so they can continue to frequent those businesses,” she added.
Leading by Example
Gray has long been active in the community, and for the past two years, she’s been president of the board directors at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.
“They were obviously two of the most challenging years for small businesses in particular, so being part of a chamber supporting them was really gratifying,” she said. “Being able to be in the trenches with the executive director and the board of directors and all the various committees that were supporting businesses staying open and surviving the pandemic … I’m really proud of the work we did there.”
She also serves on the board of the Amherst Boys and Girls Club — another family connection, as her mother served on the board of the Chicopee club for many years. She’s also a state ambassador in Massachusetts for CHERUBS, an organization that raises awareness and funds around congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition that affects newborn babies, including Gray’s own baby, who passed away seven years ago.
As the mother of a 19-year-old son, “I think it’s important to set an example for him that it’s not just about getting up, going to work, doing your job, and coming home at the end of the day — it’s about outreach and community development and being out there. It doesn’t just make you feel good, you’re actually doing good. I think it’s important to set that example for our future leaders as well.”
At her day job, of course, she supports businesses in other ways.
“It’s a little win every time we see a new business open, whether it’s an existing business or a small business just starting up. Pyramid is a leasing company; that’s what we do. We want to lease our spaces, we want to stay fresh and relevant, so every time we have a new tenant that’s opening up, we’re excited to share that news. I think it’s a testament to us as a developer that we’ve been able to celebrate so many new openings.”
Gray has heard the rumors over the years that shopping centers aren’t doing well, or are on the decline.
“But people still want to open businesses in successful centers. We’re seeing more and more walk-in requests to look at spaces. There was a time when the phone wasn’t ringing at all, but they’re starting to see that the trend is going up and people are craving being out and about and not just holed up in their homes anymore.”
She also loves working with existing tenants on ways to expand and market their businesses. “They really took a hit, so anything we can do to support the business and spread the word, anything we can do to keep the businesses going, I want to be part of that.”
Gray’s mother no longer works in the shopping-center world; she’s in residential real estate now. But she was very excited to hear her daughter was now general manager of Holyoke Mall.
“She said she’s really proud, and I said I’m really proud, because I went from selling gift certificates at the customer-service desk and answering phones to actually leading the charge for Western Mass.’s largest shopping center. I’m the first woman general manager at Holyoke Mall, and I’m really proud of that. I’m proud to share that story because maybe a little girl can hear that and know that you can start small, and if you grow and work hard at it, someday you can do this too.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]