Off the Record: Marktplatz Mall never quite fulfilled its promise

Last week I wrote about the Marktplatz Mall’s origins, how it was intended to solidify the New Ulm downtown retail community and stave off the development of a “cornfield” mall out on the edge of town. For several reasons, the mall never quite fulfilled its destiny.

One of the reasons was timing. New Ulm came late into the downtown mall business development idea. I can’t think of one that started up after the Marktplatz Mall opened. By the time New Ulm got its mall built, the trend seemed to have run its course, and it was harder and harder to attract tenants.

Another reason could be the inability to realize the original plan. The city and Ryan Development, who built and managed the mall, had hoped that the mall would be able to connect with Minnesota Street businesses. A shop like Jensen Clothiers, for instance, could have had a Minnesota Street entrance and an entrance into the mall, expanding the store and opening up more traffic for the mall and the store. But there weren’t many businesses willing to do that. Most of the businessses didn’t own their buildings, and the landlords didn’t see much incentive to tie in to the mall.

Only Herberger’s was able to make the connection, and moved its men’s department into one end of the mall, with the main store serving as an anchor on the north end.

There had been hopes of attracting another major retailer to anchor the other end, a Penney’s or a Sears, for instance. But that never came to be, and there was little on the other end to draw traffic to the south end.

When the mall was built, a grand opening date was set when all the stores would be ready to open. But when several of the shops had opened, it was decided to move the grand opening up a week or two to capitalize on the great interest in the project. But several of the shops were unable to get ready in time, and the grand opening crowd wandered around looking at locked doors. It wasn’t a great first impression, and may have deterred some from coming back.

Ryan Development had hoped to attract a restaurant into the mall as a draw, but never quite got a taker.

The changing business climate didn’t help the small retailers who were the mall’s tenants. Large chains in men’s and women’s clothing stilll had the advantage of buying huge inventories, and the smaller, single store operations couldn’t compete. The River Hills Mall in Mankato was just a half hour away, and the Mall of America came along to draw people from all over the state to Bloomington.

One by one the shops closed. Brett’s, which was supposed to be the middle anchor in the mall, closed when its parent company shut down. Others, like Tradehome Shoes, just decided they were reaching as many New Ulm folks with their Mankato store. There were fewer and fewer shops coming in.

Over time, a lot of the shops were shuttered. By the time the group from California, calling itself New Ulm Retail Development, came along, the mall was in pretty sad shape, and NURD’s epic ownership battle with Randy Danielson didn’t help. A variety of non-retail businesses came and went, and today the building is sitting empty, after the closing of Herberger’s was announced.

Today the trend toward online shopping has made it hard for retailers to consider opening shops in smaller malls. Big malls still have the advantage.

The Marktplatz Mall is still a great piece of real estate, and it will take some innovative thinking and fresh ideas to help it move into the future.

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Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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