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Several months ago, a group of local organizations invited North Iowans to come to Southbridge Mall and share their ideas on how to repurpose the mall.

It was a positive experience with a lot of interesting ideas expressed. It was heartening to see the number of people who were enthusiastic and have visions of what the old mall could become.

I say “old mall” because it opened in 1985 and, 32 years later, has become a victim of changing times, just as malls across the country have experienced similar fates.

One of the shortcomings in ideas on how to repurpose Southbridge – and I myself fall victim to this – is that many of the ideas are too narrow to solve the problem. Yes, an arcade would be a good idea to draw kids, and rebirthing the theater would be a good idea to generate traffic of all ages, and specialty shops would be a nice feature. But each of these, individually, would only occupy a small space in a big structure.

Former Councilman Max Weaver used to talk a lot about “thinking outside the box.” Salvaging Southbridge might mean thinking outside the box to repurpose what’s inside the box.

I thought it might be useful to research what some other cities have done with their malls in recent years.

In Oliver Springs, Tenn., a mall became available at a bargain price. (Sound familiar?) A church purchased it and began a remodeling process that took several years. Now the old mall has a sanctuary that seats 800 as well as classrooms, meeting rooms, a chapel and administrative offices.

The Arcade Mall in Providence, Rhode Island, had been open for three decades when it fell victim to its large national stores moving out. Local stores were hanging on for dear life. Developers repurposed the mall by turning it into an apartment complex with attractive living quarters for young and old alike. The residents patronized the local stores “in their neighborhood” and the concept attracted other stores to open.

One-Hundred Oaks Mall in Nashville opened in 1967 and had a pretty good run for nearly 40 years. When times got tough, the mall took an entirely new direction. Half of it was converted into a medical center with a spacious, attractive lobby, many clinics and administrative offices. The other half of the mall remained a retail center with various local shops – providing something for people to do before or after their doctor appointment, or for family while they were waiting for someone who was seeing a doctor. (Worth noting is that this repurposing was made possible because Nashville is the home of Vanderbilt University; its medical center was looking for a place to expand).

There are many other examples of apparently successful repurposing of malls but one of the common denominators is that all of them were the result of careful planning, filling a need and having community support – and patience – because these things take time.

Imagination doesn’t hurt, either. In Cleveland, part of a mall that featured a huge skylight in its center court was turned into a greenhouse with local shops all around it.

Let’s think outside the box about what’s inside the box – and hopefully we’ll be pleasantly surprised at the new Southbridge.

John Skipper retired from the Globe Gazette in February 2018 after 52 years in newspapers, most of that in Mason City covering North Iowa government and politics.


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