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EDITORIAL: Leadership void imperils mall

Circle Centre needs new vision

November 18, 2017

Carson’s, the sole remaining anchor in downtown’s Circle Centre mall, is entering the make-or-break holiday shopping season on the ropes.

It’s a very real question whether the company’s parent—Bon-Ton Stores Inc., which has its headquarters split between Milwaukee and York, Pennsylvania—will be able to continue operating, especially if sales in the coming weeks disappoint.

Bon-Ton, which has 260 U.S. department stores, replaced its CEO last spring, and jittery suppliers this fall scaled back shipments, fearing they might not be paid in full. Bon-Ton shares now fetch about 44 cents after getting delisted from Nasdaq this month.

All that would be disconcerting enough were it not for this reality: As the mall’s corridors decline steadily, with vacant storefronts increasing and second-tier tenants like an indoor-miniature-golf course replacing national chains, no one is stepping up publicly to champion a solution.

We realize there are no easy fixes. The retail landscape is fundamentally different today than it was when the mall opened in 1995, well before online shopping even existed. And department stores, once the titans of the American shopping mall, are almost universally ailing.

At this challenging time, it’s worth reminding ourselves how the mall was built in the first place—through extraordinary leadership from the mayor’s office, mall developer Simon and some 20 local companies that together chipped in $75 million of the $320 million cost.

The 752,000-square-foot mall was the lynchpin for downtown’s redevelopment, and the convention-goers who now regularly flood downtown because of that renaissance almost invariably stroll its corridors (receiving a less-than-favorable impression along the way).

That impression could get even worse if Carson’s fails to stay afloat. In 2014, when city officials cut a rent-reduction deal with Carson’s, they acknowledged in a report that—unless they doled out tens of millions of dollars in incentives—they were unlikely to land another department store.

Losing Carson’s would have a “devastating impact” on the mall and surrounding properties, the city report said.

Simon in recent years has racked up successes on the mall’s perimeter—most notably deals that backfilled the department store space Nordstrom vacated in 2011 with The Indianapolis Star’s offices and with restaurants and bars.

But all those businesses open on to the street. Meanwhile, the malls corridors are dying.

If there’s a sense of urgency among government and private-sector leaders, we aren’t seeing it. IBJ reported two years ago that Simon wanted to make $20 million in Circle Centre improvements, but that work has yet to occur.

Worse yet, no one is convening a public discussion on how to reposition the property for a successful future. We’re convinced there are ways to redevelop swaths of Circle Centre for fresh uses, such as residential, hotel and convention space.

No doubt, such plans are complicated and pricey—and require bold thinking. It’s time for today’s leaders to take a page from their brethren who defied the odds and got the mall built in the first place. The stakes are too high to sit silent.•

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To comment on these editorials, write to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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