Watching and waiting

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 10, 2001

Skyline Mall businesses aren’t writing off the future of the retail center just because Wal-Mart is planning to relocate.

Saturday, February 10, 2001

Skyline Mall businesses aren’t writing off the future of the retail center just because Wal-Mart is planning to relocate. The mall recovered after Montgomery Ward and JC Penney vacated their stores in the 1980s, and if Wal-Mart does depart, most hope the mall will land on its feet one more time.

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Rumors of a Wal-Mart Supercenter locating in Albert Lea have been swirling around retail circles for a couple of years. It was no surprise to Skyline businesses when it was confirmed in December that Wal-Mart architects had begun discussions with the city, a sample of proprietors said.

&uot;I think I first heard the rumor almost two years ago,&uot; said Herb Andersen, owner of three Hallmark stores in Albert Lea, one of which is located in Skyline Mall. &uot;I think those of us with businesses out here saw this coming.&uot;

Andersen said he’s trying not to worry about business after Wal-Mart leaves their Skyline location.

&uot;I’m fairly close to retirement, and honestly, I’m getting tired of worrying about the mall and the stores,&uot; Andersen said.

Many of his customers have asked his opinion, but Andersen has no predictions about what might fill the Wal-Mart vacancy.

&uot;They could plant corn on one end, beans on the other and succotash in the middle for all I care – that’s what I’ve been telling people who ask me what I think,&uot; Anderson said.

Don Sorensen, owner of Cafeteria Don’L, has run his restaurant in Skyline Mall for 33 years. Up until the late 1970s, Skyline was a prosperous regional shopping center, he said, with Montgomery Wards on one end and JC Penney’s on the other.

&uot;Back then people were coming to shop at Skyline from all over the area, including Iowa. We never had vacancies in those days,&uot; said Sorensen. &uot;It was amazingly busy.&uot;

In the 1980s, customers from rural areas were traveling to the new malls and shopping districts in Mankato and Mason City, Sorensen said. Even Wal-Mart’s arrival in the late 1980s hasn’t reinvigorated the mall, he said.

For that reason, Sorensen isn’t surprised by Wal-Mart’s plan to relocate to the east end of town near I-35. He hopes his restaurant will only feel a minimal impact.

&uot;When something as big as Wal-Mart leaves, it’s always an issue. But we’re a point-of-destination restaurant. Most of our customers are regulars,&uot; said Sorensen. &uot;As long as we continue to do a good job, we should be okay.&uot;

Sorensen hopes the city and county will take a close look at the space left behind by Wal-Mart.

&uot;I think it could make an excellent office building for city and county non-courthouse services. It’s a big versatile space with plenty of parking,&uot; he said.

Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts in another point-of-destination store with a regular set of customers from around the region. Manager Linda Pownell hopes Wal-Mart’s departure won’t affect her business too much.

&uot;There’s bound to be some slowing, but that would be the people who just stop in because they are already out here. Most of our business is from regulars who make the drive just to visit our store,&uot; Pownell said.

In her 6 plus years as manager, Skyline has always been pretty quiet, Pownell said.

&uot;I guess the heyday of this mall has already passed,&uot; she said.

Albert Lea Mayor Bob Haukoos said he will commit the resources of Greater Jobs, Inc. and the Albert Lea Port Authority to find a suitable business to occupy the Wal-Mart space in the mall.

&uot;I think we need to keep Skyline Mall and the west side of town viable,&uot; Haukoos said. &uot;The city will do what it can to see that the west side stays healthy.&uot;

Haukoos said developments like the Wal-Mart Supercenter are doing a lot to make Albert Lea more visible to motorists on the I-35 and I-90.

&uot;For years we’ve been losing potential visitors because we didn’t have a presence on the interstates. Now that situation is changing, and things are changing for the better,&uot; Haukoos said.

Plans are underway for a Wal-Mart Supercenter located in the area bound by I-35, Highway 46 and the East Main/I-35 entrance ramp. The city council gave the site preliminary approval in December.

The 155,000-square-foot store will sell groceries and services along with conventional discount-retailer offerings. Construction of the store could begin this spring. Once it’s completed, the Skyline Mall Wal-Mart will close and relocate to the new site.