Two Michiana shopping malls aren’t what they used to be. What will save them?

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Mag and Bob Smith walked through Elkhart’s Concord Mall for the first time in 40 years on Monday. They’d just recently moved back to the area and wanted to check out one of their old local favorites.

“We have lots of memories of this being a thriving mall and so we wanted to come in and see what’s happened to it,” Mag said. “Wow, how empty it is.”

The couple used to spend time perusing now-closed bookstores and getting hair done in long gone beauty shops. They took care of all of their shopping needs at the mall, Bob said, save for groceries.

The transformation the Smiths saw happen to Elkhart’s lone mall is happening all across the country.

Shopping malls are struggling to stay afloat as traditional anchor stores like Sears and Carson’s close up and shopping moves to the web.

Retail expert and Director for the Center for Education and Research in Retail at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, John Talbott, said that shopping malls in America are undergoing an evolution.

“The shopping center has really always been about an experience that takes place there,” Talbott said. “Today, I think what we’re seeing is a more direct experience in the shopping center itself, in the form of restaurants, gyms, office space, and co-working space.”

Two Michiana malls blemished by blight are lacking both tenants and shoppers. These former shopping epicenters have declined over the last few years and shoppers are taking notice and their business elsewhere.

Orchards Mall

In Benton Harbor, right off of I-94, a large structure sits mostly empty.

About 75% empty, that is.

Orchards Mall, a once popular destination shopping center in southwest Michigan, now feels dead inside, according to one shopper who wished to remain anonymous and was at the mall just to mail letters at the post office.

Another shopper, Anette Naylor, and her husband, David, brought their kids to play at Slackers, easily the mall’s most popular attraction.

“Malls are dying in the country,” Anette said.

David added that the pair has seen quite a bit of change over the last few years.

“Five years ago, you had Carson Pirie Scott, you had Sears, you had JCPenney,” David said. “I do think it’s going to shut down sooner than later.”

One of the mall’s remaining major retailers, JOANN Fabrics, does not even use its interior mall entrance. Shoppers must use the store’s individual entrance on the outside.

Photos: Orchards Mall

Heating the mall during Michiana’s cold winter months is an ongoing struggle, as the mall was forced to close on Valentine’s Day due to “unavailable heat,” according to a post to its Facebook page.

At the end of January, in a phone call off-camera, mall manager Ed Moore said the owners were currently disputing the cost of an unpaid water bill that nearly shut the mall down.

Moore also said the owners were looking towards “a plan of implementation” in the near future. He did not elaborate on the plan and said no specific details were available.

“At this time I don’t have anything positive or negative to say. All I can say is I'm hoping the owner goes forth with his plan of implementation,” Moore said. “I understand that malls aren’t what they used to be but this place has a lot of potential.”

Moore added that the mall brought in a new tenant, Triple Crown Creations, in mid-January and plans were being discussed for a new pet grooming business to set up shop in one of the mall’s empty storefronts.

Shoppers said they mostly visit Orchards Mall at this point to send off mail, let their kids play, or get exercise by walking laps.

Talbott weighed in on what the future of a mall like Orchards could look like.

“It needs to be rethought,” Talbott said. “It would be a candidate for repurpose. It sounds like whatever gave it credibility from a shopping perspective, over time, whether it was tourism or whether it was something else, that apparently there must be other alternatives and places to acquire goods.”

Talbott cited a growing trend in the country involving the transformation of dead or dying malls into other uses.

For example, America’s oldest indoor shopping mall in Providence, Rhode Island, The Arcade, now boasts small apartments, turning unused retail space into microlofts.

Elsewhere in Michiana, University Park Mall turned a storefront once used by a children's clothing chain into a revolving pop-up shop space with short term lease opportunities, giving smaller stores a chance at doing business somewhere they might not usually be. Most recently, it featured a brand focused on goods made in Indiana.

While its future remains unknown, those who continue to walk Orchards Mall's corridors hope that someone might be able to breathe a little life back into it.

“Do something with it. Just don’t completely tear it down,” Anette said.

Concord Mall

In 2016, the Elkhart County community was presented with a plan to transform Concord Mall into an open air town center, sparking conversation and renewed hope in the mall’s future.

Then the conversation fell silent.

In the years since, the mall has lost many of its small tenants, leaving empty storefronts and declining foot traffic.

Some stores have closed altogether while some like Kay Jewelers have relocated. The jewelry store closed down its mall location to move into the open air shopping area, Elkhart Market Center, down the road.

Anchor store Carson’s permanently closed in 2018. Talbott said that the loss of major retailers like this one affects the mall as a whole.

“It’s not good for the other players because they were never meant to be a draw by themselves,” Talbott said. “You have to recreate the ecosystem. I think of malls as little planets and you have to have all the elements right in them in order for them to thrive.”

The roughly 600,000 square foot mall still boasts popular retailers like Hobby Lobby, JC Penney, Claire’s, and Champs. A dental clinic and eye doctor also lease space in the mall.

Photos: Concord Mall

Elkhart native Tim Stanley often brings his kids to the mall to play. He grew up going to the mall with his grandparents and wants to give the same experience to his own kids.

“We need a bigger play area,” Stanley said.

Stanley does a lot of his shopping online, but said if the mall had more options, he might change his tune.

“If there’s somewhere with enough stores to make everyone in my family happy, then I would prefer to go the mall and spend time with my kids and let them have fun,” Stanley said.

Shoppers in Elkhart may be in luck. In February, a Chicago-based investment company bought the mall and placed CapRock Real Estate at its helm.

The new managers hope to clean up the mall’s image, bring in new tenants, and draw more shoppers in through its doors.

S.L. van der Zanden, CapRock’s CEO and Managing Principal, said that talks are ongoing to sign on new tenants as early as later this year.

“One of them is an office user that could put upwards of 1,000 people there on a daily basis, which would obviously be a great boom for the existing tenants like the food court,” van der Zanden said.

Van der Zanden also shared tentative plans for a small food mart that sells essential items.

CapRock is still assessing the mall’s current state but is working on overhauling the malls’ website, signage, landscaping, and interior.

The firm already operates several Michiana locations in their portfolio, which currently boasts, in total, over 1,400,000 square feet of commercial real estate.

There are no current plans to close the mall, according to van der Zanden, and the prospects of an improved shopping center are exciting to existing shoppers.

“I saw a man on a crane fixing some of the light bulbs and I thought, somebody is taking care of this place and that was encouraging,” Mag said.

Talbott said a shopping center like Concord Mall could benefit from experienced-based tenants, like gyms, office spaces, doctors’ offices, and restaurants.

Even the country’s largest mall, Mall of America, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is repurposing unused retail space. In 2019, the mall put in a medical clinic.

The need to fill empty anchor tenant space is on the mind's of malls all across the country. In Youngstown, Ohio, a former Sears store was demolished and will be turned into a a new four-acre athletic and entertainment green space and entertainment venue called the "DeBartolo Commons."

Talbott believes shopping malls will continue to exist, but just in different ways than they previously have. They might not look like the shopping centers of many shoppers' youths, but they will survive he said, in new iterations. 

“They need to be more interactive, more social, but they’re not going anywhere,” Talbott said. "Shopping centers as a whole will evolve. They need to be more laser-focused on remembering that you can't just put a bunch of stores in."

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