On an average Thursday, Burnsville Center is full of empty stores and possibility.

Mall walkers cruise through the colorful '90s-era food court and past dark storefronts, some of them admittedly drawn more by the south metro mall's vast emptiness than by shopping options.

Outside J.C. Penney, Kelly and Tanner Kaski of Lakeville watch as their 3-year-old daughter, Milly, climbs around in a Paul Bunyan-themed play area.

"She loves playing here," Kelly Kaski said. "[The mall] is always dead, so she can run."

But there are also new signs of life in — and high hopes for — the mall that in recent years has been desolate enough to be highlighted in two episodes of the documentary series "Dead Malls."

Coming soon: Enson Market, an Asian grocery store chain, and Ate Ate Ate, a food hall, both part of the $30 million Pacifica of Burnsville project that had initially been slated to open early in 2024. Sustainable Safari, an exotic petting zoo, aims to open July 1 in the former Old Navy.

Marshall Nguyen, also a key player in the Pacifica project, is one of several investors who bought the mall in September.

Expenses are high because it's a large property, and turning retail space into a food hall is complicated, he said. But rent is "the cheapest in town," probably one reason the mall has attracted 40 new tenants, some temporary, since September. The mall was 65% vacant when the new owners purchased it; now the rate has dropped below 50%.

The mall's new owners are replacing the roof and ripping out dingy carpet, trading it for bright white tile. Anchor stores including Macy's and Dick's Sporting Goods, along with several immigrant-run businesses, are drawing visitors who can now dine in a nearly full food court. (New options include soul food, Filipino and Somali restaurants.) At least two large events are scheduled for the mall's parking lot this summer, including a Vietnamese Community of Minnesota festival in mid-June.

Nguyen said he's in talks with a company interested in opening a 40,000-square-foot pickleball facility in the mall.

"Our dream is for every tenant to be successful," Nguyen said.

Brion Aune, the mall's maintenance manager, grew up Eagan, visiting Burnsville Center often in his youth. He said he was initially uncertain about coming to work at a mall that seemed past its prime, but loved the idea of bringing it back.

"We're just telling people, the mall's still here," he said. "We're open."

A day at the mall

The Star Tribune spent six hours at Burnsville Center on a recent weekday to survey the scene and take a pulse on the mall's health. Here's a sample of what we found:

11:21 a.m. Father-son team Chris Westman and Chris Westman Jr. of Laminate Specialists are refacing cabinets at what will soon be a juice bar. Chris Westman is wielding a tape measure while his son puts glue on the cabinets.

12:16 p.m. At Victoria's Secret, Kathia Thoma takes a customer's measurements. Up to 200 customers walk through on a weekend day, Thoma said, adding she has 10 to 15 regulars that come at least once a week.

12:25 p.m. Wilson Graham, Zumiez store manager, transferred to the Burnsville Center location three months ago. Though his store is empty, he's heard there's lots of new leases being signed at the mall, he said as he prepared to unpack boxes of new shoes, hoodies and skateboards. "If they're going to be bummed out about the mall being dead, I'm just going to go at it with a positive attitude," he said as Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" played on the store's speakers. "The mall might be dead but we got the music bumping in here."

12:32 p.m. A dozen customers mill around the food court. Craig Adams and his son, David, wait for food from Pupuseria Olocuilta Comida Salva, a Salvadoran place, as the smell of new tile grout wafts through the air. Craig Adams said they came to buy David some shirts at JCPenney. Stores like American Eagle or Pac Sun are needed to draw in younger shoppers, he said, adding that the mall used to be "hopping" with nowhere to park on holidays.

1:53 p.m. Mark Somerville and his wife, Raha, cleaned up at Skaterapolis, which they believe is the first indoor skate park in a mall in Minnesota. Housed in an old GapKids, Skaterapolis has its own entrance allowing for later hours. Mark Somerville doesn't think retail will come back but believes the new entertainment offerings will revitalize the mall. "Business is really good," he said.

2:34 p.m. In the food court, Manila Sizzling Plate owner Rowan Gutierrez took a break to eat lumpia, a Filipino egg roll. This new location – he once had a restaurant in St. Paul – has been here just a month; his "soft opening" drew 100 people. When he first came, the food court was empty but the rent was affordable. Now weekends are his busiest times. "They want to bring back the mall," he said of the owners. "I think they can do that."

3:02 p.m. Eric Childs, owner of Mind's Eye Comics, is alone in his store, which sells comics but also nonfiction, including biographies and Black history titles. He used to have a Mind's Eye location in Burnsville's Heart of the City and said his family was skeptical of his move to Burnsville Center. But he's optimistic: "Five or six months down the road, this mall will look completely different," he said.

3:20 p.m. Kathy Torkelson tried to return a Lane Bryant purchase but discovered the store is now gone. Instead, she let her 7-year-old granddaughter ride the escalator for fun. Torkelson last visited Bath and Body Works days ago but before that hadn't been to the mall in months. "As you can see, it's very much empty," she said. "I'd hate to see it go, but I think that's malls in general."

3:42 p.m. Tim Stubbs of Apple Valley has walked around Burnsville Center most days for five years. He uses his Nordic walking poles to get an enhanced workout, he said, as he waved to an acquaintance. "I've met a lot of people ... and made a lot of new friends," he said.

3:55 p.m. A dozen people crowd Shear Innovations barbershop, waiting for haircuts and chatting. As he faded and tapered a customer's hair, barber Freddy Barrera said the mall's new owners are professional. The bathrooms used to be dirty, while now there are construction workers, cleaners and mall ownership around, able to respond quickly to any maintenance issues. "We're willing to stick it out" to see how the mall does, Barrera said.

4:13 p.m. "JCPenney's is coming back to life," said Glyneece Hunter, a part-time employee, as she rang up a customer's skirts and pants and convinced her to open a credit card. "People are starting to shop more." Hunter, a JCPenney cashier for 11 years, said the store has had good coupons and sales recently. She's heard there are two new food court restaurants, though she doesn't have time to go there on her short breaks.

4:25 p.m. Theodore Williams, owner of Teddy B's Gourmet Popcorn, was lured to the mall six months ago by the affordable rent and plans he called "very intriguing." Wearing an all-white chef's outfit, he said he has a "nice following" of customers who come to Burnsville Center just for his popcorn, which comes in flavors like "Cheesy Bear" and "Sugar Bear." He said when the petting zoo opens, he thinks he'll get more foot traffic.