Everything is new inside Roni LaCroix’s latest business venture, Molly & A’Nya’s Fast Food. Located in a tight 800-square-foot space inside the Northgate Mall, it has sparkling new stainless steel fryers and other equipment in anticipation of its opening this month.

But it’s the banner outside that LaCroix is most proud of. Actually, it’s a little patch near the middle that has the letters “LTM.”

The marking is his small tribute to the namesakes of the restaurant: Molly, his mother, who died last summer on his son’s birthday; and A’Nya, a daughter who died in utero in 2010.

LTM. “Live through me — they’re living through the restaurant,” said LaCroix, who also owns Invincible Printing, also located in the Northgate Mall. “So whatever I have to do to make sure that this is going to be up and running, that’s going to inspire me the most. I’m not doing it just to open up a business and make money. I’m also doing it to keep them living. That’s why everything has to be brand new in here.”

LaCroix is not alone in his passion for the new business. He’s one of five startup operations that either recently opened or will open this summer in Northgate Mall, Lafayette’s first shopping mall.

Long since abandoned by major retailers and customers after the arrival of the Acadiana Mall and as other retailers moved out to the suburbs, the 50-plus-year-old building is staving off extinction thanks low rent and a welcoming space for minority business owners.

“Minority businesses are opening stores there,” said Corey Frank, president of the Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce. “It’s almost like they’re revitalizing Northgate Mall. Northgate Mall used to be the top spot. Everybody went to the Northgate Mall. I honestly think it’s going to become a new hub for our area. “

It may not be worthy of being called a comeback yet. Big-box retail stores are not moving in. Northgate still has a number of vacancies, a couple of which are large.

Not alone, Northgate exists in a national environment of struggling malls, with Reuters showing 28 of 77 metros reported a rise in vacancy rates in the first quarter.

While fighting local perceptions that it’s dying, Northgate may have found a role as a sort of neighborhood business incubator.

“I pray for this every day I drive up (here),” said Lisa Champagne, mall manager for the last 17 years. “I want to make this mall something that Lafayette has never seen before. We have reasonable rent. It’s a family-friendly environment. It’s safe. The tenants that are here, they’re here because they make money.”

Who's moving in?

One of Tamika Babineaux’s dreams was to open an event center on Lafayette’s north side. The Grand Coteau native moved here with her husband 15 years ago, but for the last year has been trying to find a spot big enough for what she wanted to do.

She wanted the old Stage space in the Northgate Mall.

Instead, she and her business partner, Simaria Glaude, went with a smaller space to open Le Béni, a 4,350-square-foot event center near the front of the mall that they hope to open early next month. It will host a variety of events, and the facility will have an exterior entry so it can stay open after the mall has closed.

“I think the north side needed something like that,” Babineaux said. “There are so many other businesses there that are opening, and I think it’s going to be a great thing for the Northgate Mall. Everybody thought the Northgate Mall was gone and people were leaving for the south side of town. I think there’s still something for people to go in and visit.”

Others moving in, Champagne noted, include Ronique Lambert opening a swim wear shop in a small space near the mall’s north entrance, Ebony Roberts opening a natural makeup and skin care business and Chris Ozen opening a boxing gym.

Josh Edmond held his ribbon-cutting ceremony May 25 for his small business, Let Your Light Shine. Edmond, a foreman at the paint shop at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is also active in the community, carries local arts and craft products to give people a chance to sell their items.

“It’s a motivational and inspirational store,” Edmond said. “All proceeds on items bought from my store will go right back into the community. Answering the call is the slogan. For community advocacy, love and literacy.

“I’m just a huge advocate for change. I just want people to know that change can happen no matter how you were brought up. You can turn that trial into testimony.”

Edmond is also a big believer in the Northgate Mall, as is LaCroix. Following the closure of the Walmart Supercenter and other businesses in the area, LaCroix hopes to find a market with people who work nearby and don’t have much variety for lunch.

He’ll offer fried chicken, fried and grilled shrimp, barbecue hamburgers and other items.

“If anybody is looking to start a business and didn’t have the revenue as much as anyone else to do it, I would suggest they come here and start off,” LaCroix said. “They would have to promote their business just like they promote anything else. You’ve got to market yourself.”

The old mall

Courthouse filings show the history of the Northgate Mall. It first acquired the property from Billeaud Development Co. in 1967 and recorded its first lease with K&B before others followed: JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, TG&Y, J Weingarten and others, including something called Little Bill 33 Flavors Ice Cream Shop.

They all peeled away over time. A portion of the mall was demolished, but space was later added on the eastern edge. Nonretail tenants followed, such as Planet Fitness, and New Orleans-based Brothers Food Mart bought the property a few years ago.

“This is pretty typical,” said Barry Spizer, chief executive officer and managing partner of SRSA, which manages the property. “Older mall properties are typically suffering with occupancy issues, and it is tough to attract national tenants. As a result, landlords are more open to working with startup businesses and mom-and-pop tenants. It is a good opportunity for those businesses.

"This area of Lafayette is ideal for that type of entrepreneurship,” he said.

The economics are tough, he noted, but the mall has to reinvent itself to survive. Malls today have to get community involvement to survive, and part of that challenge rests on putting those larger spaces back into commerce, often by subdividing.

At the Northgate Mall, Champagne noted there has been interest in the old Stage space along with the former Transcomm building, which was scheduled to be the next location for T.M. Landry Prep.

There’s also the public perception of the mall that she must overcome, but the former St. Martin Parish schoolteacher said she’s not giving up.

“That’s something I’ve had to work really hard on since I’ve been here,” she said. “I just wish we could do something to change their minds. As much as I’ve heard that people want this place to close — all the stones they throw at us — we’re just stepping on them and building higher and higher, ya know?”


Follow Adam Daigle on Twitter, @adamdaigleAdv.