Our Opinion: Mall deal is positive, but don’t forget small businesses

Published 11:03 am Thursday, November 20, 2014

As one of the largest business sales in years moves toward completion, Austin needs to remember the little guys.

While many Austin residents see the proposed deal for Hy-Vee to take over Oak Park Mall and build a new 60,000- to 90,000-square-foot Hy-Vee grocery store as a positive for the community, it’s easy to forget the project isn’t a slam dunk.

In a few years the project will end with a beautiful new grocery store — not to mention a repaved parking lot — and spaces for additional businesses, but soon it will displace several current Austin businesses — some of which could close or leave town.

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The city of Austin and the Austin Port Authority announced the proposed $3.2 million deal to purchase the entire Oak Park Mall site — except for Shopko — last month, thanks to a Hormel Foundation grant.

The city is expected to demolish most of the mall. Shopko, Younkers and Cinemagic 7 will stay, but most other tenants are looking for new homes.

As reported in Tuesday’s Herald, the displaced businesses are asking a simple question: What about us?

These businesses have been mired in uncertainty. Initially, they received notices to leave the mall by the end of November, but now they’re slated to be out of the mall by the end of this year.

But that’s only a brief respite from the complicated process of securing a new location and moving inventory to a new store — a process that’s not cheap or simple.

This is not to say that this is a negative project. Overall, we commend Hy-Vee, the Hormel Foundation and the city of Austin for taking a proactive approach for a project that looks to be a positive for the community.

However, one thing is very clear: This is a transformative project for Austin, and projects of this magnitude simply don’t happen without some negative repercussions.

However, those negative repercussions are adding up, and that doesn’t need to be the case.

Several businesses, like Gypsy K Consignment and Enchantertainment, are moving to Albert Lea. Other businesses like A to Z treasures, Two Bears Trading Post and Just 4 Kix dance studio are still looking for a new home. Longtime businesses like GNC and VisionWorks may not reopen in Austin, either. GNC representatives say the mall location will close Nov. 30 but it’s uncertain whether the company will find another spot to open in town.

We applaud Laura Helle and Vision 2020 volunteers for stepping up, as the group could potentially help find locations for businesses that have yet to move. In addition, Vision 2020 may be able to help find small grants for business owners to offset relocation costs.

This is good news, but it’s just a start. We call on the Chamber of Commerce and the city to take a proactive approach to keep these businesses in Austin.

Hy-Vee, a chain with more than 200 locations in the Midwest, received help from the Hormel Foundation and the city, which we applaud. But the small businesses and organizations affected need help too.

Mall still has prominent place in the community

While Oak Park Mall’s reputation has been mired by tax issues, empty stores and an unkempt parking lot for several years, it’s worth noting the mall still has a prominent place in the community.

If the sale to Hy-Vee is finalized, which we hope happens, the mall’s demolition will leave a void in the community and make for significant changes.

Simply put, the mall is a meeting place. It hosts several community events, like Tuba Christmas and Taste of Nations, events that will need to find new homes in the future.

The mall often rented out spaces to nonprofits like Kids Against Hunger or the Mower County DFL at little to no charge. In addition, the mall has been a gathering place for senior citizens and vulnerable adults from places like Cedar Valley Services and Primrose Apartments. Many residents have used the mall as an indoor walking space to keep fit, and several organizations use the mall during the holidays for area charities, like the United Way of Mower County’s coat drive and the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree.

“People in the community don’t know how connected they are to the mall,” Dylan Kaercher, owner of Enchantertainment, told the Herald earlier this week.

The mall’s impending closure means those organizations will have to go elsewhere. Another thing will be missing from the mall this year, as Kehret said there won’t be a Santa Claus at the mall this year.

That said, trends seem to be pulling businesses away from malls and more toward strip malls. This can be seen by looking at recent developments on 18th Avenue Northwest. Even the Burnsville Center is implementing this approach by building more businesses with outside access.

We still think the Hy-Vee deal will be good for the community, but it’s worth noting projects like this are never black and white. They’re vastly complicated and will bring a number of changes to Austin’s community.