Rumors swirl as Springfield's North Town Mall circles the drain

May 17, 2006  |  Comments

I wonder if the developers at Wal-Mart have contacted the Dead Mall guys about what to do with North Town Mall?

The deadmalls.com Web site is run by retail historians Peter Blackbird and Brian Florence, who research and photograph the scads of failing malls across the country. The men also offer, free of charge, to "travel to your location to provide insightful ideas on what can be done to make a retail center viable again."

And yes, North Town is on deadmalls.com.

Walking along the main open corridor in the mall, it's almost hard to remember the full, bustling retail center that opened in 1977 with a great cafeteria. Today, there is only one retail business in the mall, the Another Comic Book Store selling comic books and comic-book- related material.

"It is kinda creepy sometimes," comics store owner Jeff Evans says of the deserted mall, its light subdued because the retail spaces are dark. The one wing of the mall still open to mall walkers is chained off from the other wings and Wal-Mart on the east end.

Evans says he does well at the location. "I mainly depend on repeat customers."

The leasing company renting the spaces for North Town's owners, Wal-Mart, will only lease to prospective customers for one month at a time now. That's down from the six-month lease Evans got from the company when he leased his space; it expires in July. So what's up with that?

Wal-Mart applied to the city building development department for a wrecking permit to demolish the mall and a building permit to construct a wall on the premises, says city permitting coordinator Jeff Volkmer. "But since then I got an e-mail from them saying they'd canceled that project."

Area residents probably won't know anything about the giant retailer's plans until they see the heavy machinery pull into the North Town lot. Carrie Thum, Bentonville, Ark., Wal-Mart's spokeswoman for Missouri and Arkansas, says she hasn't been told of any plans.

But we've all heard rumors about what's going to happen: It may become a Supercenter; it may become the new location of Sam's Club here; the company may demolish it and start all over.

"There've been so many rumors, I'd be afraid to cite them," says Ron Tappan, director of commercial real estate for Carol Jones Realtors, a company that has worked with Wal-Mart on several projects. He says there's been some talk among local business people about putting a "first-class shopping center" on the site.

"I know that Sam's is in the possible mode of moving out on South Campbell (near the Library Center) across from my office," says contractor Morris Dock of MODOCO Inc.

"I've had discussions with Wal-Mart about land values, and that tells me they might think of an alternative use for it," says commercial industrial real estate broker Dave Murray. "And with the short-term leasing. ..."

"My personal speculation is a Supercenter," says local developer Sam Freeman. Freeman says he tried to buy or lease a tract of land on the North Town property for a customer, but "they said no. They weren't talking about doing anything with it."

Freeman says that 20 years ago he thought the site would have been an ideal place for an outlet mall, and North Side Betterment Association member and Springfield businessman Joe Jenkins would still like to see the company pursue that route. But Freeman and Tappan say there are restrictions as to how close outlet malls can be to each other (we have them in Osage Beach and Branson now), and restrictions on how close they can be to retailers that sell the outlet's merchandise for full price.

"I'd put hotels and restaurants," says Rick Quint, vice president of Walton Co. He noted the success of Ruby Tuesday's and Applebee's — which his company built, operated and subsequently sold — near North Town.

"They're getting ready to have the Street Rod Nationals at (the Missouri Event and Entertainment Center), and they never have enough hotels," he said.

A lot of northsiders want a food store. Consumers Market pulled out of the site in 1995, and the closest market northeast is at the corner of Division Street and Glenstone Avenue. Barry Collier, an MRI technologist and lifelong northsider, says he'd be happy even if a smaller store the size of the old Consumers were there. He said he thinks there are plenty of people to patronize it, especially with many new, large subdivisions popping up.

"The old Consumers by Consumers Hardware thrived, and it thrived when it went to North Town," Collier says.

"I wish they'd put another food store over there," says mall walker Jean Fleming, pointing to fields of empty land north of Interstate 44.

Murray says a grocery store will come to the area when the demographics — i.e. enough feedable mouths in the area — will support it.

Another factor that changed the desirability of the North Town location is highway changes, he says. "Most (large retail centers or stores) locate at a major intersection, and it's not one anymore."

Fleming puts on her jacket after taking what she hopes won't be one of her last mall walks. "I'll miss this in the winter, or when it's chilly or windy."

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