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EDITORIAL: Bold thinking on Circle Centre should include new ownership

April 27, 2018

The Carson’s in Circle Centre was set to close for good on April 29, leaving the downtown mall without a department store anchor for the first time since it opened in 1995.

You don’t have to be a retail expert to know what the closing will mean for the small shops within the mall. Closing off the Carson's entrances will further reduce traffic in mall corridors, translating into lower sales and even more store closings.

The mall for several years hasn’t left a positive impression with the throngs of conventioneers who walk its corridors. Now, it’s about to get a lot worse.

Which is why we are renewing our call for a sense of urgency—and strong leadership from Mayor Joe Hogsett, Visit Indy, business leaders and others—to develop a plan for Circle Centre 2.0.

We’re encouraged by the Hogsett administration’s stated desire to think big about the mall’s future, with an eye toward uses that would position it to thrive for 15 years or more.

In the interest of thinking big, here are a few bold ideas:

The city or current mall owners—a collection of 20 local companies—should seek proposals from developers nationwide seeking proposals for new ways to use the space. Everyone agrees its location in the center of downtown is spectacular. The problem is a multi-level shopping mall is obsolete in an era of online shopping. It’s time to unleash developers’ creative firepower.

Any redevelopment plan should include the sale of the mall. There’s no shortage of irony in the fact that Circle Centre’s unique ownership structure—which was crucial to getting it built—is now a hindrance.

Here’s the history: After then-Mayor Bill Hudnut started construction in 1989, Saks pulled out as an anchor, leaving Circle Centre with just one department store. With an anchor lost and the nation in recession, lenders retreated.

The local companies filled the void, agreeing to chip in $75 million of the mall's $320 million cost. Thank goodness they stepped forward. But the result is an ownership bureaucracy, with no single owner having enough skin in the game to drive decision-making by itself—or to make the mall’s future its top priority. Even Circle Centre’s manager, mall giant Simon Property Group, owns just 15 percent.

That helps explain why the owners have allowed the mall’s decline to continue as far as it has. Also slowing their reaction is that, even as mall corridors lose tenants at an alarming rate, restaurants with street-level access continue to open on its perimeter. Rent from the new eateries helped Circle Centre post record revenue in 2017.

It’s hard to understate how sleepy downtown was before Circle Centre. Its progress since is impressive. But it wouldn’t take much to lose that momentum.

Consider the words of veteran real estate developer Mike Wells, who advised Mayor Steve Goldsmith when the mall was built in the early 1990s: “Your downtown is either getting better or getting worse. There is nothing in between. Downtown is clearly getting better. But if something horrible happened to the mall, I am not sure I could say that.”•

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