MASON CITY, Iowa — Two decades ago, Jean Thompson left her hometown here in north-central Iowa for a new life in Texas. A tragedy brought her back.
Her husband suffered a traumatic brain injury in a crash.
And so home called. Thompson needed family members to help care for her husband — people like her mom, Jan Whitehurst.
When I meet them this week, mother and daughter are heading up an echoing corridor at the Southbridge Mall, aiming for the door.
Coming home after a long absence can be sobering. Change from what we remember can seem abrupt. That is Thompson’s sense of what’s become of the mall, one of more than two dozen properties controlled by the Kohan Retail Investment Group. The future of the company’s Berkshire Mall is uncertain.
Here in Mason City, this Kohan property also suffered a long slide. But unlike the mall in Lanesborough, things are happening.
“It used to be very, very busy,” Thompson tells me. “This was the place. Now it’s just a ghost town. The domino effect.”
She makes sounds of dominoes falling.
Thompson and her mom had just shopped at Bath & Body Works, one of the mall’s remaining stores. The brightly lit and heavily scented place is a kind of a Yankee Candle for the body. Instead of lighting its products, you spray or smear them on.
Both women are aware of the big civic venture aborning here. They just walked by large color photos of a proposed hotel and drawings of a hockey rink already being constructed.
Whitehurst shakes her head. The mall’s long slide down saddens her. It isn’t the first time she’s told her daughter what she misses at this mall, like the theaters.
“Every time we come here, she has something to say,” Thompson says.
Not something good.
• • •
This week, I get the chance not to return to Mason City, like Thompson, but to see the city for the first time.
Coming into town off the highway, I pass Southport Plaza, a strip mall. It’s empty save for an Iowa DOT office and, at the far end next to a cemetery, a discount tobacco store. Malls aren’t the only retailers struggling here. The tobacco shop does a side business selling cheap eggs and milk.
Downtown Mason City comes into view about a quarter mile out. And when I say downtown, I mean the roofline of the Southbridge Mall, watched over on the right by the rugged brick First National Bank.
It’s a rare pair: Shopping mall and downtown.
More than 30 years ago, the arrival of a mall here didn’t suck commerce from downtown. It brought life back. Long before Kohan came to town, Mason City gave a mall developer use of an extraordinary piece of real estate. The mall rose right on top of a stretch of South Federal Avenue, north of Willow Creek, and on land astride the avenue.
Today, the downtown’s original structures and the newer mall remain fused by that experiment. And now, in the only public-private project of its kind I’ve encountered in the Kohan universe, city officials and mall owners think their interests align.
Mason City is building a hockey arena where a mall anchor store bowed out. The rink is expected to attract young players and their families from a wide area. It is a key element of what people here call the “River City Renaissance.”
Mason City isn’t starting from scratch. Music Man Square, celebrating the birthplace and work of composer Meredith Willson, creator of the musical “Music Man,” borders the mall site. On the opposite side sits the Historic Park Inn; it’s believed to be the only surviving hotel designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
A few Mondays ago, the City Council checked off on another construction chore, as the arena takes shape on the old Penney’s site. Officials agreed to seek bids for work to connect the new rink complex to the interior of the mall.
Officials have been through a lot already. One prospective development partner gummed up the works, people say, by failing to get financing for a planned hotel. That related venture is moving forward, with the state is kicking in millions of dollars to help.
Mason City took precautions when it entered into business with Kohan. When the project got the final go-ahead this winter, Mason City set two ground rules. They seem reasonable to anyone familiar with Kohan’s track record. The mall must perform adequate maintenance and remain current on its property taxes.
Last year, Cerro Gordo County filed a civil lawsuit against the limited liability corporation through which Kohan owns the mall. At one point the LLC owed $218,637 in unpaid taxes. Kohan told the local paper he was good for it, then said he wasn't paying because the mall was "going under." The taxes were finally paid, but not before three of four checks bounced, the paper reported.
Kohan has not responded to requests for comment on issues raised by people interviewed for this series.
• • •
Jared McNett, a reporter with the local daily, the Globe Gazette, fills me in on the revitalization effort, which he covers, when we meet for a late lunch at the Blue Heron north of downtown. Cafe staff are still talking about the day U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren stopped in a few weeks ago on a campaign swing through Iowa.
McNett says local officials were vary of terms involved in the deal and mindful of Kohan’s failure to take care of his mall here. “Disgruntled,” he says. When it rains, buckets are set out in mall corridors to catch drips.
But the city was kind of stuck. It needed to work with Kohan’s company, which owns the property on which the rink is being built. The city will pay Kohan for use of the land in a 20-year lease.
“People have noted the irony of having someone like Mike Kohan in their town, and thinking he’s more the Harold Hill type,” McNett says. That’s a reference to the character in “The Music Man” who tries to pull one over on hapless small-town folk.
“People were upset that the mall might not be paying property taxes while the city was paying it,” he says. But with a lot riding on the arena, and for the hotel planned for a section of mall parking lot, officials were ready to strike a pact with Kohan.
Cerro Gordo County wanted a success. A pork-processing plant had come courting a while back, but that venture hit local turbulence, despite the promise of 900 new jobs. Some people worried about the plant’s environmental impact. The project died in a 3-3 tie before a local board — and the company involved picked another Iowa county.
Agriculture rules here. The Kraft Heinz Co. runs a Jell-O plant near downtown. Without the churn of money through farming, it’s questionable Mason City would be financially healthy enough to reach for revival.
• • •
Inside the mall, Riddle’s Jewelry hangs on. Lights from its display cases spill out into the heart of the mall. More and more, other retailers’ lights here have clicked off.
But Riddle’s glitters on, supported by a broad corporate base — 60 stores throughout the Upper Midwest — and by its bellwether clientele: farmers who come to the mall to buy gifts for special occasions, says Julie Hunt, a store employee.
“Just not during planting and harvest,” she says.
Hunt and two co-workers, Cody Nicholas and Ashlee Weinschenk, pause for a little colloquy on the future of retailing. Nicholas, who moved to Iowa from Willmar, Minn., says last year’s closing of Younkers, an anchor store, hurt. “We lost a lot of customers,” he says, citing the drop in foot traffic. “They’re already here, walking by, and they’d come in.” But that was then.
Hunt wishes the mall would attract more restaurants. It long ago lost its movie theater, and on the day I visited, the former food court was still.
Two new shops have opened, one catering to pet owners, the other to skateboarders. But others continue to pull out, including GNC, which sells health and nutrition products.
Weinschenk hopes the arena will bring energy to the mall. “Give some life to this place,” she says.
Libbie Gordon, a mother of five who has worked at the Pretzel Maker since November, says the arena project is a big topic for customers. She’s taking a smoke break outside a little-known entrance on the west side of the mall. I ask whether she thinks all the hammering at the old Penney’s site will change this place.
“I’m hoping, yeah. People come in and ask me about it. I’m praying for it,” she says.
Is she in the habit of praying? “I pray for this place.”
• • •
I find Ron Paulsen on a bench facing the north entry into the mall, with a view out onto Federal Avenue. A few decades ago, he would be sitting in traffic.
Paulsen fingers the cracked screen of his smartphone. He’s Mason City, born and bred, and looks like he lives a little rough. I ask what he thinks of the renaissance plan. He’s not into it, mostly because he feels this era of retailing, of enclosed malls, has a fork in it.
I point out that taxpayers are going to give this place another try.
“It’s a big waste of money. Look around. It’s desolate here,” he says. “I don’t see how anyone can imagine any hope for it. It’s why thousands of businesses are closing nationwide.”
At 19, Sarah Wendel, who just started work at the North Iowa Children’s Discovery Center, might be one of those younger Iowans drawn to the area’s newer stores in strip malls, mostly to the west of town.
We talk as she gets ready to host a father-daughter tea party. Like others, Wendel hopes the arena rising on the other side of her center’s back wall helps out.
Wendel attends community college now, but recalls discussing her hometown mall’s struggles in high school classes. “We’d always talk about different ways of promoting it,” she says.
She had her ears pierced at the mall when she was 7. As a young dancer, Wendel used to perform here. The mall’s Christmas decorations dazzled her when she was a child. Even before she took a weekend job at the center, the mall still drew her in. She’d come to buy gifts for her mother at Bath & Body Works.
• • •
I head over to GNC to confirm what I heard at the jewelry store.
We’re not closing, a young guy at the register says, we’re moving. That’s a key distinction for an employee. The shop is moving to the city’s west side, where Walmart has kicked off a real estate boomlet.
No one else is in the shop. I ask whether he thinks the mall will catch fire after the arena opens. Will GNC want back in? “It’s hard to tell until it’s done. Time will tell,” he says.
Across the corridor, Rick Larson, owner of Larson Red Zone Sports, is moving — but only around the corner within the mall. As a regular customer flips through sports trading cards, Larson shakes my hand and agrees to talk shop. He thinks the arena is going to be the fuel that ignites the mall, where he’s been located since 2006.
“It’ll be tremendous for this city,” Larson tells me.
While he doesn’t sell hockey sticks, or sports gear in general, families coming to the arena seem like future customers for his store’s memorabilia and sports collectibles. “Even those hockey fans are fans of other sports,” he reasons.
Because of the mall’s troubles, Larson did look around at other possible locations in Mason City. The Younkers closing early last fall worried him enough to do that. Buckle, a clothing store, also decided to move elsewhere in Mason City.
But Larson says he couldn’t find another spot at a better price. “I feel my rents are very fair,” he says. “My business hasn’t suffered as much as people think. I haven’t really lost too much ground.”
This winter, Larson joined a delegation of longterm mall retailers to attend a municipal meeting. They went en masse to say the city should invest in the arena project. Representatives of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, both mall tenants, came along.
I asked Larson what message they were trying to send. That malls are facing hard times, he says, but this one can be brought back to life, if the city invests in the arena and other elements of the River City Renaissance.
At the time, some people were pushing to build the arena elsewhere. Larson and the others pushed back — and won the day. The mall got its second chance.
“It needed to be downtown to draw people here,” he tells me, speaking of the arena. “If you don’t draw people to your downtown, it kills your city from the inside out.”
NEXT: For some mall shopkeepers, life in a failing Kohan mall is life in limbo.
Larry Parnass, investigations editor for The Eagle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.