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After 50 years, Grand Cities shopping center still evolving

Alonzo Guzman, cuts Conrad Kuznia's hair this week at the People Barbers in the Grand Cities Mall. Guzman started the barbershop in 1965 at the mall and has been there ever since. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
A shopper checks out shoes at Jacks Shoes in the Grand Cities Mall this week. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Alonzo Guzman has owned two businesses in the Grand Cities Mall, one successful, one not.

Still operating is People Barbers, which was called Leonard’s Barber Shop when the center section of the mall was built in 1965, a year after the shopping center’s inception with the construction of anchor Kmart.

His failed business was Chacherz, a Tex-Mex restaurant next door to the barber shop.

Both enterprises tell the evolutionary story of the Grand Cities Mall, which started as South Forks Plaza: The key to success is having a product that doesn’t require walk-in customers.

“One reason for the restaurant’s result is the lack of traffic here in the mall,” Guzman said. “Our barbershop, on the other hand, is a destination place and the amount of mall traffic doesn’t matter much.”

Destination shopping

The Grand Cities Mall is not a stereotypical shopping mall.

It has far fewer retail outlets than Columbia Mall and thus fewer customers walking the shopping aisles. However, Grand Cities’ has a high occupancy rate for its spaces.

Besides Kmart, which opened in February of 1964, Play it Again Sports and Ace Hardware are among other retailers using more than 18,000 square feet of space. Ferguson Books and More will move from its locations at Columbia Mall and the Menards strip mall on 32nd Avenue South to the Grand Cities Mall in March. Owner Dane Ferguson said the bookstore is primarily a destination business, so he will not lose much by leaving those two high-traffic areas.

However, the mall has reinvented itself by finding renters that typically aren’t associated with shopping malls. Inside its walls are three churches — Hope Evangelical Covenant Church, Thrive and Faith Presbyterian Church — and several nonprofits.

Although national chains are scarce, it has eclectic offerings such as the likes of O For Heaven’s Cakes, Precious Metals, the Bingo Palace, an Asian grocery store in Toucan International Market, a ballet company and repair shops for clocks and vacuums.

“We’ve become pretty much a destination place after the (1997) flood,” said Mary Zink, the mall manager for the last eight years.

Only four of the mall’s 55 spaces are empty now. The vacancies total less than 7,000 square feet.

“When Sears moved out to Columbia Mall (in 2000), it became a ghost town for awhile,” Zink said. “But, we’re doing really well now.”

Meeting a need

When developer Grant Jensen started building the mall in 1964 on 40 acres at the corner of South Washington and 17th Avenue South, the site was on the edge of town.

“The Drees farm ran alongside 17th Avenue, from South Washington to Columbia Road,” Jensen said.

Jensen said South Forks Mall, the first enclosed mall in North Dakota, was built in seven phases from 1964 through 1989, when a pavilion was the final touch. His plans were for the pavilion to be a hockey arena and a convention center, but another arena and the Alerus Center were built and the pavilion is now home to Hope Evangelical Covenant Church.

Jensen, who sold the mall to out-of-state investors in 1997 on the heels of the flood, said big boxes such as Target and Wal-Mart are dominating retail and affecting mall business.

“Big boxes handle everything, so you don’t really need a mall anymore,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean that malls without major retailers as anchors are doomed, Jensen said.

“(Grand Cities) is meeting a need,” he said. “As long as you have tenants who can use the space, it’s serving a purpose. It has a good location and good parking and it is high-and-dry from any flood.”

Ups and downs

Larry Stammen said the mall had an occupancy rate of 35 percent in 2000, when he took over as manager soon after Sears moved to the Columbia Mall and Plaza Twin Theatres closed. He held the job for six years.

“That cross traffic from Kmart to Sears inside the mall was important to the businesses in the center of the mall,” Stammen said. “Everyone was pretty much gloom-and-doom then.”

Stammen said one key was the mall’s name change to Grand Cities, even though probably “99 percent of local residents were against those words” as the brand for Grand Forks-East Grand Forks. When city officials backed away from the brand, Stammen was granted use of it for the mall.

“Everyone’s jaws dropped and they thought I was crazy, but it was a marketing ploy,” he said. “The next day, it was all people were talking about. And, it brought awareness that we were working to revitalize the shopping center. We got a lot of mileage out of it.”

The mall also added a merry-go-round to draw children for a few years.

But, for malls without a major drawing-card retailer or gimmick, the key is diversity, Stammen said.

“You want a mixed-use facility, with service, retail and professional,” he said. “I liken it to being its own little community. And one of the best things we did was to get the motor vehicle office there because it draws a couple hundred people on an average day.

“Service and professional tenants are better because they’re stable, they tend to stay in one place and the fluctuation in the economy doesn’t hurt their businesses.”

Big attractions

The biggest success story in the Grand Cities Mall may be Hope Evangelical Covenant Church.

It had about 80 parishioners when it started having Sunday services in 1999 and it now has close to 1,000 attendees for its weekend services, held in what used to be the pavilion. Its footprint is more than 50,000 square feet, second to only Kmart for space in the mall.

“It’s a marvelous location for a church,” the Rev. Paul Knight said. “There is plenty of parking. It’s easy to get to. It’s in the center of the city.”

He said the mall could be an attraction for more than shoppers and church-goers.

“I’d like to see something in the mall where people would want to hang out there more,” he said. “It’s a great spot for something.”

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1125; or send e-mail