A contingent from GK Development is spending three days in Grand Forks, conducting boots-on-the-ground research with a high goal for the city’s southside shopping center.
“Turning around Columbia Mall is a top priority for GK Development,” said Evan Shtulman, vice president of leasing for the Chicago-based company that owns Columbia Mall.
Shtulman was joined by James Kholamian, development leasing representative for GK Development, and Justin Valinski, general manager of Columbia Mall, for conversations throughout Grand Forks. Among their stops, they visited with members of the Chamber of Commerce, city government and, late Thursday, with the Herald.
The group stopped short of divulging specific plans for the mall, but said the trip to Grand Forks is more than just an exploratory mission.
“We’re on a path to execute and accomplish goals that have been in the works, that we have been in planning now, for 18 to 24 months,” Shtulman said. “Now, we’re in the community talking to business leaders to accomplish the goals. These deals don’t happen overnight. They take several months or several years to accomplish. Now, we’re meeting with the city and getting the finishing touches to make everything happen.”
Though the group said GK doesn’t provide specific vacancy data on its malls, closures at Columbia have been in the news in recent months – most notably the closure of traditional anchor stores Macy’s and Sears. Other, smaller, stores have left in the past year, including Rue 21, Chico’s and Shoe Carnival. In May, mall tenant Dressbarn announced it is closing all of its stores nationwide.
The changes to the retail landscape haven’t been limited to just the mall; once-popular Grand Forks stores like Kmart and Pier 1 – neither of which was located inside Columbia Mall – both closed in the past year as well.
It also isn’t unique to Grand Forks, according to Kholamian, who calls it “a national retail problem.”
It has led to a more acute conversation about the future of retail in the community, including a February trip to Chicago by several Grand Forks business boosters to discuss possibilities with GK Development.
“Frankly, when we talk to our customers, (retail trends) are the things we hear about most,” said Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Barry Wilfahrt, who was included on the Chicago trip. “We as a community need to be strong partners with the ownership group of the mall and work together to really solve this. We need to work our way through this changing retail environment.”
Matt Walkowiak, a co-chairman of the chamber’s new Market Capture Assessment Committee, said the group is “delighted to hear” that GK Development is working on potential solutions, too.
“We both want this area to be revived and to move forward,” said Walkowiak, who owns the Ground Round restaurant in Grand Forks.
Exactly what GK is working on, however, hasn’t been publicly announced. In a brief conversation with the Herald Thursday, Shtulman referenced “finishing touches.” When asked to be specific, he declined.
“Once we get signed leases, we’ll announce it to the public,” he said.
For now, Wilfahrt, Walkowiak and others – including Economic Development Corp. President Keith Lund – say they are simply pleased to see GK send a contingent to Grand Forks to get a better feel for the community and the issues at hand.
“The mall and retail in general is critically important to the community. Ten years ago, the EDC likely wouldn’t have been involved in this discussion, but today, we recognize its value in creating a vibrant community,” said Lund. “Retail in general is one of the areas of our economy that isn’t really performing as well as we’d like to see.
“A few folks, including myself, went to see (GK Development representatives in Chicago) a few months ago. The fact that they’re here, I think, is a great sign," he said.
Note: The author of this report, Korrie Wenzel, serves on the Economic Development Corp. board of directors.