When the lights go out; Oak Park Mall set to close this week

Published 7:59 am Sunday, December 28, 2014

On New Year's Eve day, the Oak Park Mall will close for the final time. Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

On New Year’s Eve day, the Oak Park Mall will close for the final time. Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

On Dec. 31, a number of Austin stores will close their doors for good.

The lights will go off, metal gratings will slide down, inventory and office supplies will be gone.

That’s what’s going to happen at the Oak Park Mall, which will shutter most of its storefronts at the end of 2014 in preparation for an upcoming demolition and eventual transformation into a brand-new Hy-Vee surrounded by a chain of stores.

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“It is sad,” Shan Kehret, marketing director for Oak Park Mall, said. “As all the stores have come in to give me their keys, there’s been lots of memories and good times, the fun we’ve talked about having out here.”

Mall Timeline

Mall Timeline

Business owners, mall walkers and event organizers are marking the mall’s end in various ways this week. All businesses except Younkers, Cinemagic 7, Shopko and Anytime Fitness are expected to clear out in advance of a proposed $3 million demolition, which will take place this spring once the city of Austin’s purchase agreement with the mall’s owners is concluded.

For Kehret, next week will mean the end of a job she spent more than six years at.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” she said.

A destination

For more than 40 years, Oak Park Mall was a shopping and event center for the area. However, by the mid-2000s the mall had lost many of its marquee stores. What’s more, its parking lot had fallen into disrepair and was considered a hazard, though Kehret and mall staff tried to address the parking lot several times.

The mall also struggled with taxes. Owners Martin Graff of M H Graff & Associates Inc., and Martin Goldman of M J Goldman & Co. Ltd., of Chicago, made several late tax payments to Mower County over the past few years to avoid foreclosure and entered into a confession of judgment with the county earlierthis year.

Mayor Tom Stiehm remembers the mall when he first came to Austin in 1976. Yet once he became mayor, many residents approached him about the mall and its parking.

“You talk to people and ask them, ‘what’s the one thing you wanted changed in Austin?’ And they usually said the mall,” he said.

ah.03.28.aYet while the mall may have lost large stores over the years, it had slowly turned into a community-oriented center. Since 2008, Kehret brought 35 new local businesses to the mall, from Legacy Comics and Games to Impact Martial Arts and Fitness.

Not all of them survived, however. Many businesses and restaurants, from Napoli Chocolates to Ruby’s Place, J&K Restaurant, Artistry Weddings and Events and more have closed, some mere months after opening.

Still, the mall became the hotspot for large events like the Taste of Nations, a food festival held in March or April dedicated to sharing Austin’s cultural background. More than 50 countries are represented each year.

 Future plans

It seemed unthinkable that someone could buy the mall, even after its money troubles.

Vision 2020 volunteers reportedly were eying the site as a potential new home for a visitor center, but few people expected the city of Austin to step up with an offer on the property.

At the end of an Austin City Council meeting on Oct. 4, Council Member Jeff Austin announced the city would buy the mall for $3.2 million. The Hormel Foundation would grant the city and the Austin Port Authority the money to purchase the city for economic development.

Shortly after that, Hy-Vee announced it was working with the city to put in its long-proposed 60,000 to 90,000-square foot store. The grocery store had planned to expand its Austin store starting in July but held off as the city entered into a purchase agreement with the mall owners.

Many in the community applauded the deal, but mall business owners weren’t pleased with the sudden announcement and subsequent eviction notices. At first, businesses were expected to leave the mall by Nov. 30, but the city worked with mall owners to extend the deadline to Dec. 31.

Still, the deal left several owners in shock.

“It’s sad,” Troy Williams, owner of Impact, said in October.

Businesses have moved out or closed, one by one. Some, like Vision World and GNC, are telling customers to visit other locations in nearby towns rather than reopen in Austin. Other businesses, such as Sears, Legacy Comics, Just For Kix and more have found new locations. For Legacy owner Josh Horvat, the mall’s closure has offered an unexpected boon.

“We were lucky to find a great new location,” Horvat told other mall owners at a meeting in October.

The city’s purchase agreement includes acquisition of the entire mall facility — except Shopko, which is owned by the retailer — located at 1301 18th Ave. NW and an additional out lot located along 18th Avenue Northwest. That includes the mall property, Younkers and CineMagic 7.

Austin doesn’t own the mall yet, however. City officials must work out a purchase agreement to buy the property with the mall’s current landlords, as well as with Shopko, Younkers and Cinemagic 7 representatives who all have agreements with the landlords as well. City officials hope to reach an agreement within weeks.

Stiehm said the deal will be a positive move despite some struggles, as there will still be several empty storefronts for businesses once the project is finished.

“When we go back in five years, people are going to see only positives,” he said.

Kehret is glad the city will be able to use the mall for a new economic development project, but she and others are hoping to find something good for themselves as well.

“I’m open to a new adventure,” she said.