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HOBART | We officially live in science-fiction times.

Southlake Mall in Hobart is getting a park with a river, trees and fish – only it's all digital. Visitors can create digital blooms and fish at seven iPad stations along the virtual river. They can even skip virtual stones across the water.

Indiana's first state-of-the-art interactive digital river will flow through the mall's remodeled center court, which has been renamed "The Docks." New owner Starwood Retail removed the carousel that had been there after buying the 1.36 million-square-foot super-regional mall at U.S. 30 and Mississippi Street from Westfield in 2013.

A grand opening is planned at 10 a.m. on July 31, when the digital river starts running through the mall.The one-of-a-kind feature will stretch for 60 feet, "bringing technology and nature together for shoppers," according to a press release.

Starwood promises the new attraction will be "stunning" and "inspiring."

"This unique element offers a relaxing ambience for our shoppers," Southlake Mall Marketing Director Erin Webster said. "It is intended to be a place for families to gather, take a break from shopping, grab a coffee and enjoy playing with the digital river."

A new seating area will be located in a "park-like atmosphere" with shimmering leaves on digital trees on five towers in the area. At the river's end, shoppers can conjure up a digital salmon that will swim upstream against the current.

"The digital river is being entirely custom built and is a first of its kind," Webster said. "The only Starwood Retail property to have anything similar would be the digital tree at Louis Joliet Mall."

Malls have increasingly looked for new ways to get customers in the door since e-commerce sales started growing at a staggering rate, increasing by an average of $19 billion a year, said Micah Pollak, assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest. The percentage of retail sales that are only have more than tripled to 6.4 percent last year from 2.1 percent in 2004.

"Indoor shopping malls have traditionally relied on anchor stores like JCPenny, Sears and Macy's to drive traffic to smaller stores," Pollak said. As these anchor stores themselves struggle to adapt and shift more to online sales, traditional indoor shopping malls are facing a serious challenge. At the peak of their popularity in the 1990s there were well over a hundred shopping malls being built each year."

No new traditional enclosed shopping malls have been built since 2006, and as many as half are expected to close in the next decade," Pollak said. Malls have been changing their business model to remain relevant to customers. 

"Long gone are the days when the phrase 'if you built it they will come' applied to shopping malls," Pollak said. "In order to survive and prosper traditional indoor malls are being forced to look for new ways to drive traffic."

Stores can have goods that are difficult to shop for online and knowledgeable sales people, Pollak said. But they're also trying to make mall-shopping into more of a unique experience that can't be replicated online.

"Another approach is to foster an environment in which 'going to the mall' is an experience that goes beyond simply shopping," he said.

"Attracting higher-end restaurants, fitness clubs, art studios or art installations and exhibits allows a mall to provide a packaged experience that includes arts, dining and entertainment and encourages consumers to spend an afternoon or day at the mall."


Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.