Inlet Square puts finishing touches on new look

The renovation at Inlet Square mall is complete, minus a few finishing touches, after stalling for more than two years, and many tenants and locals said they are hopeful that it will bring new life to the shopping center.

Torn up floors and metal frame ceilings have been replaced with new tiles, wood, paint, plaster and lighting at Inlet Square. The 430,000-square-foot mall off U.S. 17 also added a stucco exterior and new signs. Staff hurriedly arranged new furniture and garbage cans in the halls before most stores opened Tuesday morning.

"I love it. It's absolutely gorgeous - it's about time," said Maria Dehon of Murrells Inlet, who walks the mall every day for exercise.

The mall may be turning a corner on its way to recovery after it faced a string of store closings, bankruptcy and a change in ownership, businesses and shoppers said.

Inlet Square looks even better than it did when business was hopping more than a decade ago, said Richard Cathey, a retired mall security guard who still shops at the mall.

"I think it's beautiful," the 66-year-old said. "It looked good back then, but there's a difference between looking good and beautiful."

Cathey said he hopes the mall will be busy again soon.

Finishing the renovation was one of the first orders of business when Murrells Retail Associates, an entity within RAIT Partnership, became the mall's owner in September, bringing the mall out of bankruptcy. The mall's new owners are largely responsible for the turnaround, general manager Heather Gray said.

Work on the renovations - the original project was estimated at $4.5 million - started in mid-March. Only landscaping around the new signs and a few other finishing touches remain, Gray said.

Many of the mall's 44 storefronts remain vacant, and the next goal for the mall is filling up those stores, she said.

The mall announced plans earlier this year that a new movie theater and budget clothing store would open in the mall. Another addition to its store lineup is expected later this week, Gray said. The mall also aims to attract a food or drink vendor, such as a coffee shop, to the mall's newly floored central area, she said.

Frank Entertainment plans to open a 12-screen movie theater during the first three months of next year, spokeswoman Michelle Guillery said. The theater initially planned to open by Oct. 1, but renovation of the former Regal Cinemas space is still in its early stages, Guillery said.

20 Below, which sells all its items for $20 or less, will move into a 10,047-square-foot space across from Jay's Hallmark, near the newly remodeled center court. The store sells men's, women's and children's clothing, as well as accessories.

The mall food court sits empty, with the last-remaining pizza parlor moving out in the early summer. Many mall tenants said they hope to see that area filled soon. A children's play area next to the food court was removed for the renovation and that may have hurt the restaurant's business, said Gail Caskey, manager of clothing store BonWorth.

The mall still has some work to do to get where it needs to be for businesses to thrive, said Joann Bell, store manager at Jay's Hallmark. Mall traffic has increased since the renovation restarted in the spring, but people were checking out the mall's progress more than shopping, so it hasn't helped the store's business much yet, she said. A handful of locals keep the store afloat, Bell said.

Belk, J.C. Penney Co., Kmart and Books-A-Million have operated at the mall throughout the renovation, but are surrounded by empty stores.

"Once all the stores are full and the food court is busy and the movie theater opens, it'll be fantastic," Bell said.

The mall plans to have a grand reopening celebration from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday with free music, food, children's activities and gift bags.