It was hard to see just how grim the future was for smaller malls 20 years ago. Storm clouds were on the horizon but few, if any, thought one of the key features of American culture would face collapse.
There is now an entire internet subgenre dedicated to the “dead mall” phenomenon: locations that have high vacancy rates or low traffic. People are creating YouTube videos with 80s music tweaked to enhance echoes and lower high frequencies, played over photos of empty malls, and calling them “empty mall music.”
Quincy Place Mall has been hit hard in the past couple years. The departure of J.C. Penny and Herberger’s took away two anchor stores. MC Sports’ liquidation removed another high-performing store, though that has been recovered with last year’s arrival of Dunham’s Sports.
It looked like Ottumwa’s mall would face the same fate as others, enduring a long decline into irrelevance. While that outcome is still possible, it seems less likely today thanks to a handful of new storefronts that aren’t focused on retail.
The New Year’s Eve opening of Gamertag is the latest entertainment offering at Quincy Place Mall. It joins Ottumwa’s Old-School Pinball and Arcade, the Video Game Hall of Fame, and Tee Rex. And it’s starting to look like there’s something to the strategy.
People have long complained that there is “nothing to do” for teens and children in Ottumwa. That has never been true, but the additions at the mall certainly offer stronger refutation of the claim than what was available only a couple years ago.
Could Quincy Place Mall’s future be in entertainment? That now looks like a distinct possibility.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about each of these developments is that they have emerged not from some national chain or brand deciding to move into an underserved market, but that market’s residents deciding for themselves to take a chance. The businesses that may save Ottumwa’s mall have come from Ottumwa itself.
This isn’t a template that could be repeated in most larger metro areas. Nor is it a guaranteed solution for areas like this. What is happening in Ottumwa is unique to the community.
There’s more work to be done, of course. The mall still has two large, empty anchor locations. Its owners need to put in work on its website. Updates to remove the former J.C. Penny and Herberger’s from the list of stores and add the newcomers is not much to ask, nor is removing Herberger’s from its “in the spotlight” listing.
But as big as the hits from the department stores’ departures was, we’re encouraged to see this new path opening up before Ottumwa.
Institutions change with time. Even something as seemingly immovable as American commerce changes. The path to get to this point wasn’t painless. We don’t expect the future to be, either.
But right now it’s impossible to feel as pessimistic about Quincy Place Mall’s future as seemed reasonable just a couple years ago. There are some good things happening. And we wish the new entrepreneurs who are taking a chance the very best of luck.