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Creative entrepreneur helps beleaguered malls survive amid market shift

Mall operators seeking to draw more customers are turning to companies like US Design Lab to add a dose of fun to the experience.

  • By Louis Llovio
  • | 5:00 a.m. February 16, 2024
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
Michele Oca, founder and chief creative director of US Design Lab in Tampa, designed Elev8 Fun at Citrus Park Town Center in Hillsborough County.
Michele Oca, founder and chief creative director of US Design Lab in Tampa, designed Elev8 Fun at Citrus Park Town Center in Hillsborough County.
Photo by Mark Wemple
  • Tampa Bay-Lakeland
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For years now, as the conversation about the changing retail landscape has raged on, a common topic has been what the future of traditional malls are.

There are naysayers who say they are doomed. There are those who believe these huge properties can be redeveloped and repurposed. And then there are those who say they are still gathering spots and are in need of reinvention.

A Tampa company, US Design Lab, falls squarely in that third category.

Founded by Michele Oca, a 55-year-old native of Italy, US Design Lab works with companies that take existing spaces that are stagnant or not producing and transforms them into entertainment hubs. These range from creating live music venues and nightclubs to indoor laser tag arenas and go-cart tracks, the company says.

The firm has done projects across the United States and has done work in Canada and Saudi Arabia. The company designs center for clients in all different types of spaces, but Oca says about 40% of what the company does is inside or adjacent to malls.

One of its latest projects was taking the former Sears store at Citrus Park Town Center in northern Hillsborough County and designing Elev8 Fun in the space. Elev8 is an 125,000-square-foot two-story arcade and entertainment center with video games, bowling lanes, rope courses that spread into the mall itself, go kart tracks and a restaurant and bar.  

The Citrus Park center, like other projects US Design Lab has completed, is expected to bring new life to the mall, drawing in people who may otherwise have taken their dollars elsewhere. And like any attraction, the idea is that once they’ve entered, they’ll wander around and visit other stores.

In other words, the idea is that it will breathe life into a shopping concept, the traditional mall, that’s lost its luster.

In a conversation with the Business Observer, Oca — who as a designer restyled hotels in Italy, fashioned a new line of footwear in China and brought a “home” bowling alley to life in the White House — spoke about his company, what he thinks entertainment centers bring to malls and how he got into such a niche industry. Edited excerpts:


People are happier together

“I started in 1997 designing products for the entertainment industry. I was designing and marketing for a big company that was doing bowling centers. I got passionate about this because I like to create something where people have fun, because we need some fun and entertainment right now. Especially right after COVID.

“Because of spending a lot of time at entertainment conventions, I knew all the vendors. I knew who was doing go kart tracks. I knew who was doing bowling. Who was doing laser tag. And I knew all the new trends. Every time that I was attending those shows, I was getting new ideas. And then I was very curious, so I was interviewing those people to know the minimum dimensions, how people play. Doing this, I was able to create this kind of unique skill to lay out those facilities. It's not easy. It's not like making a layout of a bar. I needed to know how people play, how people move in those situations, what they think when they walk in.

Elev8 Fun is an entertainment center at Citrus Park Town Center in Hillsborough County.
Courtesy image

“I always designed those facilities having open space so when you walk in you can see all the attractions. My job was to take those big boxes, and also small boxes, and transform them in something that people enjoy.

“I remember the first time that I designed this location down in Fort Lauderdale, in 2014. It was called Extreme Action Park. This was my first big job. I spent a Sunday there just after we finished it. The people were really happy, they were gathering together, they were staying together, enjoying playing together. It was like a positive energy kind of environment. I thought, ‘This I my job.’ Because bringing some happiness to people is what I like. This is why I do this."

Fill the fun void

“I always liked to design things, to invent and design things. I started just doing branding, creating logo catalogs and websites. But this was not enough. I knew what I wanted for my life since I was a kid, but I never imagined coming here to the US and designing these new facilities. But I saw that there was this need.

“When I moved here 10 years ago, to do my job a customer needed four or five different companies. They needed a branding company to create the logo, and the name, and the website, and everything for the location. And then they needed a designer, an interior designer, an architect, a web agency, a marketing agency. I said, ‘Why? I use the internet to do all this with my company.’ Why do they need to interact with four or five different companies, spending 10 times more than what they should spend? So, I said, ‘I'm going to create a company in the US that going to do everything.’”

Elev8 Fun brought go karts to Citrus Park Town Center in Hillsborough County.
Photo by Mark Wemple
The dynamics of losing, then replacing, an anchor tenant

“Remember the structure of those shopping malls? In this case, they had Macy's, Dillard’s and Sears (as anchors). So, by closing Sears these shops in this kind of big I (shape) were dying because nobody went there, because this wing was not attracting people anymore. All the tenants in that areas were like alone. Opening this family entertainment center, you now have a lot of people going back and forth on this main aisle. This means that a lot of people see your product, go into your shop while they're walking.

“It’s like having an Apple Store in your shopping mall. People are attracted by that.

“They have their own entrance from the outside, but I've seen a mother leave the father with the kids in the facility and walk into the shopping mall and do some shopping. This is one situation. Another is that they go into the entertainment facility and then go to eat something in the shopping mall.”

Entertainment centers can enhance, not replace malls

“People want something different than only to buy stuff. Because in Florida, when it's super hot or when it's raining a lot, what can you do? It’s not like Italy where you have museums and a million things to do. Here, you can go to the movie theater or you can go to a restaurant or you can go to a shopping mall. Nothing else.

“A shopping mall is just like something where you can get out of your house and spend some time outside of your four walls and away from Netflix. I always see the husband that is very, very, I'm going to say mad, because he knows that he has to spend money.  You can see those poor guys seated on the bench while their wife and daughter spend five hours in Victoria Secret. With (an entertainment center) you give them an alternative. You can say, ‘Okay, let's go but let's have some fun. Let's ride go karts, let's play bowling together. This is good for the family.”



Louis Llovio

Louis Llovio is the commercial real estate editor at the Business Observer. Before going to work at the Observer, the longtime business writer worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Maryland Daily Record and for the Baltimore Sun Media Group. He lives in Tampa.

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