The arcade still flickers with electricity and 8-bit melodies that bounce off the deconstructed mall ceiling. Inside the mall, floor tiles have been ripped up and cement dust now covers the clown standing where the children's play area once was. The arcade is still on the first floor, which is now ground zero in the $60 million renovation of the "New Burbank Town Center."
In November, we broke the news that the L.A. area's last family-run mall arcade, the All Amusement Fun Center, was closing its doors. We reported, then, that Jim Rowton's arcade was scheduled to be bulldozed by March, pursuant to a notice Rowton got from Texas-based Cypress Equities (the agent for CAPREF Manager LLC, the new majority owners of the Burbank mall), who required the space to create connectivity with the former IKEA site, where a 765-unit apartment building and 40,000 square feet of retail complex were being constructed. After surviving what Rowton describes as the worst recession in his 45 years in the amusement industry, where he worked 362 days a year as small business owner and arcade engineer, Rowton felt as if his business was on death row.
"It was a shock," he says. "We had survived the recession, and just as things started picking up for us, we got the news." Cypress Equities had told Rowton that he had to move his arcade to the third floor, which would have resulted in more than $100,000 in moving costs and — the deal breaker — a tripling of his current rent.
By November, Rowton, with the steadfast support of his wife, Susan, had spearheaded a campaign to save his arcade. It began in October with an in-store petition that garnered more than 2,000 signatures. Susan then posted a sign inside the arcade asking customers to email Chris Maguire, CEO of Cypress Equities, to protest the closure. "My goal was to have the community send 100 emails a week," Rowton says. "I just wanted them to tell Chris what they were telling me every single day: That we were providing the community a social benefit and an immersive experience that had 23 years of history in the community."
As an employee, I witnessed the movement to save the arcade first-hand. Countless families, gamers, special-needs children and Burbank High School students were united in their support of a tiny family arcade, an artifact from a bygone era of entertainment.
Nobody thought it would actually work.
Cypress Equities, which had already overseen the closure of several mom-and-pop shops inside the mall, had also underestimated the cultural capital of the All Amusement Fun Center's two-decade run inside the Burbank mall. In its effort to revitalize the struggling mall, Cypress saw the arcade as collateral damage rather than a symbol of localism. Once it was clear the Rowtons' arcade wasn't going to remain a tenant, Cypress Equities began to consider more lucrative opportunities, including the amusement chain Dave & Buster's. Quietly, community pressure began to mount. Not only were customers of the All Amusement Center calling and emailing Cypress' CEO; there was also a "Save Burbank Neighborhoods" campaign protesting the overdevelopment of Burbank, which, along with construction delays and some bad press, began to chip away at Cypress' vision for a gentrified Burbank mall. Dave & Buster's and other brand-name retailers never signed a lease agreement. While it's unclear why, exactly, many close to the situation cite the lack of mainstream interest in the Burbank mall — which has been, for most of its 25-year life, a mall that relied on a tenant mix of mostly family-run businesses.
By January, the Rowtons' arcade was in demand again. For Cypress, it was a quick fix for its public perception problem and need for rent-paying tenants. Lance Taylor, a director at CAPREF, reached out to Rowton for a face-to-face meeting inside the mall. To his credit, Taylor offered Rowton a much fairer lease deal; he even allowed Rowton to pick his own space on the third floor. "The voices of the community had reached Lance," Rowton says. "He was genuinely receptive and very humble during our meeting, which surprised me. He really cares about being a good steward for the community."
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After weeks of negotiating a new lease agreement (a process that usually takes about six months), the All Amusement Fun Center is on the verge of signing a long-term deal to remain inside the mall, which still has an uncertain future.
On April 15, the current location will be closed, as the first floor of the mall will be reconstructed into the new food court. Rowton expects to reopen on the third floor by June.