Mall Works to Remain Relevant

By Beacon Staff

By the 1980s and 1990s, Saturday afternoon at the local mall had become a ritual for many teenagers and families across the nation. But today the question is: With the rapid expansion of big-box stores and so-called “lifestyle centers,” is there still room for the mall?

Yes, says Kalispell Center Mall Manager Meg Lindberg.

She’s not concerned about the mall’s viability, despite increasing numbers of people going to big-box stores like Target and Costco on North U.S. 93 and the construction of large projects like the Hutton Ranch Plaza and Bucky Wolford’s proposed lifestyle center. After a dip in national mall popularity in the past decade, she said the traditional enclosed shopping mall is making a comeback.

Mall officials are trying to capitalize on this resurgence with a remodel project that includes repaving the parking lot, adding a bank to the property and 36 rooms to the connected Red Lion Hotel, and redoing the mall’s interior. Lindberg mentioned other possible plans, like wireless Internet throughout the mall and an indoor train system that kids can ride.

Three businesses left the mall this year, she said, because they had been there about 20 years and it was time to move on, not for any other reasons. The mall now has 32 of its 37 department spaces filled.

Any initial panic over the influx of big-box stores has subsided at the mall, she said.

“A lot of businesses were stressed when the build-out began,” she said.

Mall expansion is desirable but difficult, Lindberg said, because the surrounding railroad and Cenex Harvest grain factory box the mall in, even though the mall owns land on both sides of the railroad tracks.

Sean Conrad, senior planner at Kalispell’s planning department, believes the mall is dying, though he doesn’t like it. He sees more large businesses coming to North 93 in the near future, including Wolford’s 400-acre plus project.

“It seems like people like to go to the new places,” Conrad said. “The big-box stores are getting even bigger.”

Because Conrad’s office hasn’t even received building applications yet from Wolford, he doubts the lifestyle center could break ground any earlier than next October.

Though he didn’t know exactly what should be done, Conrad said the Kalispell Center Mall needs to do something to keep up with changing times.

“It seems they have to reinvent what businesses they put in there,” he said.

The mall isn’t doing that, Lindberg said, but it is making efforts to change with the times. She said the mall is altering its image and atmosphere, though she couldn’t comment on specifics because that’s the job of executives from Red Lion Hotel, which owns the mall property. The Red Lion spokesman in Kalispell was out of town at the time of this article.

“We think, ‘What can we do that one of those big-box stores wouldn’t do?’” Lindberg said.

North U.S. 93 in Kalispell looks just like Reserve Street in Missoula and so many other similar big-box store strips in other cities, she said. It looks like “Anywhere, U.S.A.”

Increasing urban sprawl versus maintaining Main Street’s character has been debated for years in this country. There used to be a pervading feeling in communities that “malls replaced downtown,” said Rolene Schliesman of the Montana Historic Preservation Office. Now the debate, she said, is more between big-box stores and downtown.

Kalispell is unique because the mall has always been downtown and is a member of the Kalispell Downtown Association.

“It’s actually a key anchor for downtown,” Kalispell Chamber of Commerce Joe Unterreiner said, explaining that the mall helps bring business to Main Street shops.

Conrad agreed.

“If you’re shopping at the mall, you’re already downtown,” he said. “It makes sense to go to some other businesses downtown if you need something else.”

A mall can offer some things a big-box store can’t, Lindberg said, as evidenced by the hoards of middle school kids, high school couples, mall walkers and families that fill the mall every weekend. The mall, she said, is a safe place for young people to hang out – a middle school boy doesn’t bring his sweetheart to Home Depot on Saturday afternoon.

The mall also holds charity fundraisers, dog shows, cook-offs, book sales and many other events that can be found on the mall’s Web site.

Lindberg believes there’s room for both big-box stores and the mall. Unterreiner agrees because the presence of both creates more business competition, which if good for the economy, he said.

Conrad said the debate between Main Street and urban sprawl won’t end.

“Some people like the big-box stores because they don’t have to go to Missoula anymore,” he said. “But some say, ‘What happened to our small town of Kalispell?’”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.