The Ottumwa Courier

July 30, 2013

Mall regains footing with new management, fewer vacancies

By CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Malls across America are standing vacant or shutting down, but Ottumwa's mall is on the upswing, said its manager.

According to Green Street Advisors, a leader in real estate research, 10 percent of the nation's indoor malls will die within the decade.

But since Lexington Realty International began managing and leasing store space at Quincy Place Mall last summer, the mall will not suffer a similar fate, said mall manager Staci Shettler.

Lexington Realty International, a New Jersey-based company, owns and has revived several malls in the Midwest.

Ottumwa's 23-year-old, 243,399-square-foot mall has two anchor tenants: Herberger's and J.C. Penney's. According to LRI, since it took over last year, expenses have already been lowered 40 percent and the mall has four new tenants: rue21 opened in October, Bubba-Q's opened in April, MC Sports will open Aug. 26 and Glik's will open in early October.

"It's amazing what's happening here," Shettler said. "I've been here as mall manager for a little over five years, and this is the most leasing activity I've seen in five years by far, and probably more so than in the past 10 years. Of course there are other things in the works ... that we just can't speak about yet, but obviously we're concentrating on leasing out any of the vacancies we have."

When the mall was purchased last summer, it was 63 percent occupied. Today, that's grown to 81 percent. And, she said, 100 percent occupancy is possible.

She has worked at the mall in some capacity for the last 17 years and has "seen it at its best and at its worst."

"When I took this job five years ago, I took it knowing what the mall could be and knowing there was potential here, and with the right management and right owners, it could be revitalized," she said.

When Shettler first took a sales position at a store when the mall was just seven years old, the mall was almost completely rented out.

"Probably our worst was the change when Walmart left ... when it was built down the road," she said. "We went from built-in traffic from Walmart to a big vacancy on the end. But I think the owners recovered quickly when they filled it with Goody's and Dollar Tree."

Sabrina Knapp, who owns Bubba-Q's alongside her husband, said they decided to open the popular restaurant at the mall because of the available space.

"When we were first looking at it, we saw the potential out here that wasn't being taken advantage of," Knapp said. "So we used that and ran with it."

High rent being a hurdle for retailers is a common misconception, Shettler said.

"Rent is based on so many different factors, and I think the new management company is very, very willing to work with each individual business to make it work for both sides," she said.

Financing is always an issue when it comes to opening a business, Knapp said, but it wasn't a deterrent to opening their restaurant.

"That's the thing that took us so long to make the decision was because the particular space that we took over, it had been empty for almost five years," she said. "So we knew there was going to be a ton of work."

Quincy Place Mall gets "a bad rap," she said.

"I wish that would change 100 percent," she said. "It is not what people think it is. It's a great, great asset to Ottumwa, and Ottumwans need to realize that. The growth around here is amazing, and the new owners have a great deal to do with that.

"I really wish people would give it a second look ... because it's really turning around to be something Ottumwa could and should be proud of."

The mall has a large trade area, Shettler said, with customers driving in from 50 miles around to shop.

"And I think a lot of national tenants are starting to realize the trade area here," she said. "Ottumwa may not have a huge population basis, but when you draw from a trade area of 50 miles out, all of a sudden you've got shoppers from small farming communities, from small towns driving to Ottumwa."

When it comes to the state of the nation's malls as a whole, Shettler said "what goes around comes back around."

"The mall boom started with enclosed, small areas for people to go and get whatever they needed," she said. "It became a destination for families to go hang out and shop. I think that changed over the years as we saw outlet centers coming in and the big open-air type malls coming up in bigger cities.

"But I think it's kind of coming back around, where people want to be able to get what they need close to home, to run in and get what they need in one location."

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.