River Ridge reinvents the shopping mall with a modern lifestyle center
By Laure Lee
At a time when shopping malls across the United States are closing, River Ridge in Lynchburg is more vibrant than ever.
According to a 2022 article in Business Insider, a combination of e-commerce, outdated buildings and COVID-19 have left just 700 malls in the U.S., down from 2,500 in the 1980s. Successful shopping centers like River Ridge have survived by becoming full-service entertainment centers with attractive amenities.
In 2016, Liberty University purchased 75 percent interest in River Ridge, less than two miles from campus. The following year, the university purchased the remaining 25 percent. Renovations began in 2019 to transform River Ridge into a modern lifestyle center with unique offerings and a fresh new look. River Ridge is now home to more than 60 tenants, including national retailers like American Eagle, Claire’s, JD Sports and Aerie, alongside locally owned shops like Carter Bates, The Inspiration Company and Blue Mountain Barn.
“We’re very proud of our mix of local, regional and national stores,” says Melissa Faria, general manager of River Ridge, who’s been at the property for a total of 12 years. “Our local retailers, restaurants and boutiques are a great way for us to stand out. We want to offer different things to do and make River Ridge an experience — you can’t buy an experience online.”
Faria says while Philanthropy’s flagship location is in Tennessee, the faith-based clothing retailer has made its Lynchburg outpost reflective of its mission. A minimum of 10 percent of Philanthropy’s in-store sales are donated to charity, and 100% of their online sales are donated.
Blue Mountain Barn, known for vintage items, homewares and collectibles, was founded in 2018 by Tressa Sarinana, who often posts her latest finds on social media.
“Our items are hunted all over the states,” says Sarinana. “We have friends who will send us stuff from the West Coast, and we will travel to great lengths to all the other states in order to pick up that treasure that’s unique and one-of-a-kind that we feel our customers will love to add to their own home decor.”
The entertainment options at River Ridge continue to be a major draw for locals, visitors and groups staying at nearby hotels. Guests can choose from 14 feature films playing at Regal Cinemas, stay on top of their exercise routine at Planet Fitness, let the kids loose at Bounce About inflatable playground or spend an afternoon at SeaQuest. The 20,000-square-foot aquarium invites visitors to touch, feed and interact with hundreds of animals, from snakes, birds and fish to a giant sulcata tortoise.
While River Ridge offers a dozen restaurant options like a new Duck Donuts, a few local favorites include Iron & Ale Bistro, Papa Gallo Cocina Mexicano, Mission House Coffee and Simply Vanilla, a gourmet cheesecake shop by Jessica Kercher.
“As small businesses, we don’t have as much brand power as the big-box stores, so having the national brands here helps us,” says Kercher. “The big names bring people in, and then they see the heartbeat of our community at the local shops.”
River Ridge has been a boon for the start-up business, and its proximity to local schools has attracted an influx of student talent looking to try their hand in pastry arts. Kercher says Simply Vanilla currently has 28 employees and is looking to grow.
“Visitors have come in from places like Mississippi and Kentucky and tell us they would love to have our concept in their town,” says Kercher. “Their positive feedback definitely has us considering future options.”
Thomas Clark started Mission House Coffee at River Ridge in 2018 and has now expanded to two other locations. “We are mission-focused and all about community and giving back,” he says. “We’re showing love, care and acceptance to everyone we come in contact with — by serving coffee.”
Patrons duck in for a break from the bustle and enjoy locally roasted coffee and pastries from Father’s Cafe and Bakery. “While they’re here, our guests forget about the fact they’re in the mall,” he says.
Clark says another great spot for relaxation are the renovated public areas throughout River Ridge.
“The mall is just beautiful,” he says. “Management has done a fantastic job in shifting the mall mentality from just buying stuff to creating a dining and entertainment district that also includes shopping.”
River Ridge is currently transforming the former Macy’s into an entertainment district with more dining options, national and local retailers, streetscapes and green space that will accommodate events. Though the West End District will continue redevelopment through 2024, it has most recently welcomed new eateries like Duck Donuts and Papa Gallo.
Office of Economic Development & Tourism Partnership
River Ridge has been able to access state and local incentives as the revitalization of the space has provided a significant contribution to the local economy. Taking part in both the Local Redevelopment Program and the State Enterprise Zone Real Property Investment Grant, River Ridge has contributed over $10 million in capital investment, creating and retaining many jobs for local citizens in the process. River Ridge also works closely with the Office of Economic Development & Tourism to help promote the City during high traffic weekends, including local university homecoming and graduation celebrations. The creative, outside-the-box approach that River Ridge has taken to redevelopment will ensure it continues to be a LYH staple for years to come.
By Laura Lee
Laura Lee is a Virginia-based freelance writer who loves to explore the state with her husband, two boys, and dog, Lillian.