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Casey Christie / The Californian

East Hills Mall, as shown in a file photo.

East Hills Mall, which gained a first-run movie theater last year -- but has suffered through foreclosure and the loss of three anchor stores -- could be poised for a comeback this year.

Developer interest in the mall, which drew shoppers to Mervyn's, Gottschalks and Harris before all three closed, has risen dramatically this year, a local investor said.

Now, the city is getting involved.

Vice Mayor Ken Weir, a councilman representing northeast Bakersfield including the mall, has asked city staff to add it to a list of economic opportunity areas, in hopes of assisting developers and business owners.

"It's ... just my thought on this, since we've lost redevelopment (funds), the city's been looking into ways we could assist businesses," Weir said, referring to the state's dissolution of redevelopment agencies.

The city will designate an area bounded by Haley, Columbus, Oswell and Bernard streets as an economic opportunity area, Community Development Director Doug McIsaac said -- and will also include commercially zoned land on the east side of Oswell between Columbus and Bernard.

Redevelopment agencies -- which allowed cities to use a portion of state property tax monies to improve themselves -- were dissolved by the California Legislature in February 2012.

In an effort to help property and business owners help themselves, Community Development staffers will create a database of economic incentives available, and then work with property owners who are interested in applying.

"We had four areas we had identified prior to this. Now there will be a fifth," McIsaac said. "Whether it's grants, whether it's just putting the right people together, whether it's some other government assistance program -- whatever it may be, whatever it may take to bridge that gap between it sitting there vacant, those are the things that we are going to pursue."

The mall isn't vacant -- far from it.

Local investor Clyde Barbeau, who has worked with Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets as it has purchased most of East Hills, estimated 60 percent of its retail spaces are occupied and predicted more good news later this year.

"I would say the activity over the last three to four months has been the best since we've been there," said Barbeau, whose association with the mall dates to the late 1980s. "Number of inquiries about the space and outside developers showing interest. Various things like that. I will tell you that probably 30 to 60 days from now, there might be some other interest."

Barbeau declined to reveal specifics about ongoing conversations with developers but confirmed Save Mart still has not been able to purchase the 104,000-square-foot former Harris store space from Madrid-based department store and clothing chain El Corte Ingles.

He said the mall's 250,000 square feet of interior retail space is still viable -- despite having been built 27 years ago -- but noted the three former department store buildings may be challenging to fill.

The former Gottschalks location is 100,000 square feet; the ex-Mervyn's store is 74,424 square feet.

"The department stores (today) aren't as big as they used to be because they don't have to be," Barbeau said, agreeing a store like Ross or Kohl's wouldn't be a bad fit at East Hills -- "excepting you could put two in one of those spaces instead of one."

Two possible options for the three former anchor spaces could be "splitting them up or lowering the size," Barbeau said, adding, "Maybe you're going to end with a mixed use."