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by Melissa Burden
MLive.com

Flint Township, Michigan — Coming to a shopping center near you: a mini college campus mixed with new discount retailers.

In this case, it’s Genesee Valley shopping center, the area’s largest mall.

Genesee Valley is filling a major gap left when bankrupt Steve & Barry’s exited at the end of 2008 and is adding some nontraditional tenants to fill vacancies.

Wear District, a namebrand discount clothing store, is taking over 27,000 square feet in the Sears wing and is scheduled to open Nov. 13.

That opening comes on the heels of the University of Phoenix opening an 18,000-square-foot student learning center in the mall’s Outdoor Village. Classes there started at the end of September.

Malls across the U.S. have been adding churches, schools, doctor’s offices and even museums to boost occupancy rates and stay afloat in the recession, said Erin Hershkowitz, spokesperson the International Council of Shopping Centers. Malls also are slashing rents and allowing more temporary leases.

“Shopping centers that do have high vacancy rates and especially in cities like Detroit … basically the shopping centers are looking for creative ways to fill those spaces in these tough economic times,” Hershkowitz said.

Ed McHale, Genesee Valley’s general manager, wouldn’t disclose the mall’s exact vacancy rate, but said the mall was at or above the 8.6 percent national average vacancy rate for malls of its size.

He said that the mall is in “very good shape right now” and is almost full for the holidays.

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