MASON CITY | The Southbridge Mall numbers are not pretty.

Two stores — J.C. Penney and American Eagle — announced this month they will be closing soon and another chose to leave and open at a new location.

The mall's assessed value, just under $14 million in 2000, was $5 million in 2014.

Southbridge paid $411,230 in property taxes in 2010 and $235,174 in 2013.

The latest announced closings obviously decrease the mall's occupancy rate.

But T.J. Just, mall manager, maintains the mall is stable, with many successful tenants and some potentially big deals in the works.

Just was emphatic in saying the mall is not in danger of closing.

"We're moving on," he said, referring to the recent developments. "We still have many tenants and we're not going anywhere.

"We ask that our loyal customers be patient and continue to support our current tenants."

A critical loss will come in April when J.C. Penney closes. It was one of the original anchors of the mall and a tenant for 30 years. The Mason City store is one of 40 Penney stories being shuttered nationwide, one of three in Iowa, the result of a corporate decision.

Jack Leaman, a former city planner who was instrumental in downtown planning that led to the building of Southbridge, said the closing of J.C. Penney is particularly harmful.

“We need the anchors," he said. "Anchors bring the traffic and all the other stores benefit from that."

He said it would be ideal if Marshall's, which started to build a store on the west side until the deal fell through, could locate in the soon-to-be vacant J.C. Penney space.

"I don't know whether that would be possible, but Marshall's obviously expressed an interest in Mason City and there's going to be an opening in the mall," he said.

Attempts to reach Marshall's home office for comment Friday were unsuccessful

Leaman said Southbridge is in a tight spot because, while anchors draw the traffic, prospective anchors look at existing traffic when they are scouting possible locations.

Southbridge has had money problems for many years. It went into foreclosure in May 2012 and was placed into receivership with the Chicago office of Jones Lang LaSalle America (JLL).

In December 2012, CIII Corp. purchased the mall at a sheriff's sale for $8.8 million and retained JLL to manage it. That's how Just came to Mason City.  He is an employee of JLL and was named mall manager in March 2013.

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That same month, Fred Meyer Jewelers chose not to renew its lease and closed. The next year, Cookies Etc. closed and Trade Secret closed, the latter the result of a corporate decision.

This month, along with the J.C. Penney and American Eagle announcements, Jitters Coffee Bar — a mainstay at the mall's main entrance for 14 years — chose to move to a new location.

In the meantime, one new business has started. Sensory World, a playground for children with special needs, opened this month across from Subway in the food court. It is open from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

The mall has had its ups and downs since its groundbreaking in October 1983 with many dignitaries on hand and the Mason City High School Band playing, "Everything's Coming Up Roses."

J.C. Penney opened in its new location on Nov. 4, 1984, after having been in Mason City since 1926. The mall's grand opening, with Gov. Terry Branstad on hand along with puppeteer Bil Baird and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer, occurred in three days of festivities in May of 1985.

From the day it opened, Southbridge has been at the heart of downtown Mason City, but was mired in controversy even before it opened. 

On Nov. 6, 1978, the City Council denied rezoning of property west of the former Kmart building for construction of a mall in that area. Developers claimed the rezoning was denied because the city wanted to protect the interests of investors in a proposed downtown mall.

Mason City Center Associates and Beaver Farms Inc., the west side developers, filed suit against the city, seeking the rezoning or an award of $15 million.

The city filed a counterclaim, alleging the developers interfered with the city's downtown redevelopment project and sought a judgment of $1 million.

After a five-day trial in Cedar Rapids, a jury found the city innocent and awarded  $250,000 in damages.

Younkers became the first anchor for the proposed new mall, signing on in 1980. Penney's agreed to come aboard in 1982. 

But financial problems plagued the mall almost from the start. In 1995, then-City Administrator Mark McNeill explained the problems in an interview with the Globe Gazette.

"Ever since the mall opened there has simply not been a cash flow sufficient to pay the annual retirement of the general obligation debt to the city, the debt to Norwest Bank (of Minneapolis) and at the same time make the needed mall improvements," he said.

Those problems led to the foreclosure and bankruptcy actions, reorganization of the mall ownership and renegotiations with the city in efforts to right the ship, the latest of which was the 2012 foreclosure, the sheriff's sale of 2013 and the hiring of T.J. Just.

Former Mason City Chamber Executive Dennis Orvis, now 85 and living in Winter Haven, Florida, was in Mason City during the formative years of Southbridge Mall. He said this week that downtown malls and downtowns in general have faced stiff competition from discount stores with their half-price sales and "buy one, get one free" offers.

"Mason City is an exception. Few cities in Mason City's category have done so well," he said.

Times have changed, said Orvis. "Retail is no longer the nice old lady in the candy store or the rootbeer stand." 


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