Empty Malls Find New Lease Of Life In The Form Of Charter Schools

Empty Malls Find New Lease Of Life In The Form Of Charter Schools
Cover Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Maja Hitij

America seems to have found a great way to use up empty commercial spaces like malls. As the retail vacancy rate stood at 10.3% in Q4 of 2023, empty malls have turned into community spaces like chartered schools, according to a New York Times report. The pandemic, changing consumer habits, and store closures have proved to be detrimental to the Sumter Mall in Sumter, S.C. but the new use of it has given it a new lease on life.


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The Sumter Mall is survived by Belk, a departmental store and the mall’s last remaining anchor tenant. While the mall has a few more tenants, about 60% of it remains vacant. However, the mall is seeing footfall, from tiny people, who are attending a chartered school at the mall.

The tuition free Liberty STEAM school was set up in a former JC Penney store, about five years ago by Greg A. Thompson, as per The Times report. Thompson, a local businessman and philanthropist, who started Liberty STEAM by conducting classes in empty elementary schools, was looking for a bigger space to expand.


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Thus, the enormous and mostly empty mall was a perfect place for the school. The space could allow the school to keep adding grades for the next decade, as well as other services for children.

“Our mission is to prove that we can give a world-class education to everyone and, in particular, to our disadvantaged children,” he said in the Times report.

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The report added that only 30 percent of Sumter’s students can read, write, or do math at their grade level, thus the school can be extremely helpful.

The arrangement offered many advantages for schools and landlords. Malls are generally in highly trafficked areas, so they are easy to get to. And they can be a blank canvas for a school to reimagine how it wants the inside to look.

Developers across the country are using struggling malls to give room to new schools. This growing trend helps several purposes like increasing educational opportunities, revitalizing communities, and reimagining the vast vacant retail spaces.

It also represents a symbiotic partnership as it helps the malls keep their lights on and bring in foot traffic for the remaining businesses.


On the other hand, the schools get large space to make their own in locations that are often centrally located. Moving into a mall is also cheaper for schools rather than building classrooms from scratch.

Opening schools in malls is also good for communities as it brings in new educational opportunities for kids and helps build a good reputation for the mall.


Repurposing malls as schools has been done before and more developers are considering the option to fill the empty spaces.

Almost a decade ago in 2014, city officials in Boise earlier also approved a plan to turn an abandoned mall into a public charter school. According to a CBS report, the Sage International school had 550 students in grades K-10 at the time, and as it grew in the new space planned to expand to 1,000 students in grades K-12. Furthermore, the school had some of the highest test scores in the state.


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