PEABODY — The next phase of construction at the Northshore Mall could make it more of an attraction with a focus on entertainment, dining and retail, which could also benefit the region's tourism industry.

That was the message from the mall's general manager to tourism industry and business leaders during a breakfast at Woodman's in Essex Wednesday morning.

While not divulging any specific details, Mark Whiting explained that the mall will extend its new Promenade past the site of the former Sear's department store — which will become a high-end fitness center — all the way down to Macy's, adding still more restaurants and retail tenants, as well as other features.

Whiting introduced himself to those gathered at Woodman's by saying there were probably some who questioned what he had to do with tourism.

"I first should say we attract over 13 million visitors a year to the mall, so we like to think of ourselves as the informal gateway to the North Shore," he said. "I hope you agree."

Whiting, who has worked at the mall for 21 years, was just one of several speakers at the North Shore Chamber of Commerce's Annual Tourism Breakfast held in the Essex Room function facility at Woodman's of Essex seafood restaurant.

Tourism spending

Besides all the mall talk, several of those who work for some of the region's most high-profile attractions made their pitch about what's coming up this summer.

The executive director of the Salisbury-based North of Boston Convention and Visitor's Bureau, Ann Marie Casey, outlined the economic impact of tourism spending in the state and on the North Shore, with tourism generating $22.9 billion in direct spending in Massachusetts in 2017.

About $1.1 billion of that figure is generated in Essex County, based on people coming to the region from at least 50 miles away. That's the direct spending.

However, Casey said, retailers and others also benefit from tourist dollars.

Casey said indirect spending in 2015-2016, gathered from Visa card data provided by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, shows:

"This affects everyone," Casey said, not just local attractions, hotels, museums or restaurants.

At the mall

In fact, this spring, Whiting noted the Northshore Mall has played host to a popular attraction — the Big Apple Circus — in one of its rear parking lots. The circus ends its run in Peabody on Sunday, May 12. 

A slide presentation Whiting gave offered a glimpse for the future of the space where Sears once stood, before it was demolished earlier this year. 

He called this the next phase of the mall's Promenade, a walkway that currently stretches from the new Bancroft & Co. restaurant past several new eateries such as Caffe Nero, Tony C's Sports Bar & Grill and Not Your Average Joe's all the way to Legal Sea Foods. The Promenade will eventually be built out all the way  to Macy's.

"This is before anyone else really sees it, what the next phase at Northshore will look like," Whiting said. "It's going to be a massive undertaking. It will allow us to put a new entrance where the old entrance to Sears used to be. So, where you used to walk into Sears, that's what you will see."

Whiting said the mall, owned by Simon Property Group, is putting an emphasis on entertainment.

"We are working with two leaders in the entertainment business right now to kind of create two entertainment concepts in the footprint that you see here," he said.

The area will also include green space to allow for family programming like Friday night movies, two more restaurants and more stores.

Site work

Whiting said the Sears building was demolished "in record time."

Sears closed last summer and demolition began in January. The next step will be site work to bring what was the basement of Sears up to ground level to create a new parking lot.

After that site work, construction will begin on a 145,000-square-foot, high-end health club facility called Life Time Athletic. Life Time also has locations in Chestnut Hill, Burlington, Westwood and Natick.

"We just didn't stop with the circus," Whiting said. "Now we are putting a pool in the middle of the parking lot. And it's going to be huge. And there will be an outdoor deck, tiki bar, it's going to be something really to behold."

Life Time plans to open in October or November 2020, Whiting said.

Tesla will also be bringing a service center and showroom to the former Sears Auto Center, which is located on the Route 114 side of the mall.

"We will have a combined sales and service center in the old Sears Auto, which we think will bring a lot of people, hopefully from throughout the region to have their cars worked on," he said, "(but) hopefully not too often, but often enough that they will frequent my restaurants and my retailers."

The importance of promotion

In her opening remarks, Casey outlined the importance of how money invested in the state tourism office and regional tourism councils is used for advertising, media outreach, website development, trade shows, sales missions and collaborations with other tourism regions.

It's a small reinvestment of the state lodging tax collections, but there is no guarantee the regional councils will receive that money every year.

Last year, the regional tourism councils approached the state Legislature to help the councils receive their grants in their entirety by Sept. 1, instead of quarter-by-quarter. This initiative was supported by the Legislature and governor, with help from state Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, and state Sen. Joan Lovely, D-Salem, Casey said.

"This has made all the difference for the North of Boston region," she said, allowing for consistent advertising and an almost 50 percent increase in visitation to northofboston.org

"The tourism advertising does work," she said.

Here are some highlights that were also previewed at the breakfast for upcoming North Shore attractions this year:

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.