A friend of mine often uses the expression “help me understand this” on those occasions when we get into one of those deep coffee shop discussions on the meaning of life and other simple subjects.
That is exactly the thought I have as I witness the gradual transformation of Southbridge Mall from an ashpit of disappointments to perhaps once again becoming a jewel in the necklace of downtown Mason City.
The Mason City Bulls hockey team is now playing its home games in the Mason City Multipurpose Arena, described by Globe sportswriter Shane Lantz as a “palace.” Spectators who have seen many hockey games in many venues say Mason City’s is comparable to some of the finest arenas they have been in.
When was the last time anyone used “palace” and “downtown Mason City” in the same breath? And here’s the thing. You might never attend a hockey game. You may never set foot in the arena – but you have to appreciate what its presence means to your city. It means visitors. It means excitement. It means life. Downtown merchants know what it means.
Help me understand this. While downtown malls all over the country are folding or “repurposing,” Southbridge is on the verge of a huge comeback. Already The Sports Page, a new sports bar has opened, a miniature golf venue opened last year, an axe-tossing venue is about to open, the DealerBuilt business has relocated there as has the Mason City Parks and Recreation Department.
There will be more new businesses opening and relocating. The ice arena in particular as well as some of the other businesses are generating foot traffic in the mall. That’s exactly what prospective tenants look for in evaluating malls. They need foot traffic to survive.
When the theaters closed several years ago, the mall lost a huge amount of foot traffic. It forced longtime tenants to not renew their leases. Then Subway closed, Penney’s closed and Younkers closed. Last year I wrote a column in which I said if I was going to open a store in the mall, I would have it at the entrance and sell flashlights – so people could see their way through the rest of the mall.
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Now the hockey arena is creating the same impetus that the theaters did – that elusive foot traffic – and it will be noticed by other businesses seeking to open or relocate.
Help me understand this. The mall went into bankruptcy several years ago and was taken over by a holding company. It was eventually sold to a New York wheeler-dealer for $1.5 million who has publicly stated he buys “disasters” with the intent of bringing them back to life. But the record shows he has a long history of leaving his properties in shambles while he purchases other properties. And, from the onset, he has had trouble paying his taxes.
Under these circumstances, there would seem to be little hope for Southbridge to survive. And yet …
Scott Flory, city administrator for two decades over in Clear Lake, told me one time that one of the key elements in economic development is finding projects that fit the culture of the community. That’s a concept that is separate from financial negotiations, tax base, number of employees and the usual economic development factors. But it is crucial, he said.
For better or worse, that’s probably why the proposed Prestage hog processing plant and, before that, the trash-to-cash energy project both didn’t get off the ground in Mason City. Culture counts.
Next, let’s get that hotel built. You know the one I’m talking about – the one that has been discussed for six years, has had two different developers, two different locations, two different lawsuits, two mayors, two city administrators … and a partridge in a pear tree. And yet …
Mayor Bill Schickel thinks he has the answer to “help me understand this,” heralding in his recent state-of-the-city message what he calls a current “decade of doing” made possible by many groups and individuals working together on common goals.
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.