The company that owns Columbia Mall will visit this week with Grand Forks city and business leaders next week in a round of talks expected to re-imagine the mall – and brainstorm updates to a shopping experience that’s increasingly a relic of the past.

The visit was disclosed by leaders at both City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce of East Grand Forks and Grand Forks, and comes roughly six months after leaders with GK Development, a Chicago-area firm, are last known to have visited. At the time, corporate leaders were optimistic but vague in their predictions for the mall’s future, with one executive describing “a path to execute and accomplish goals that have been in the works … for 18 to 24 months.”

Now, though, local leaders say the meeting is a chance to talk in greater detail about the mall’s future, which they describe as, functionally, a canvas that could be re-imagined in any number of new, interesting ways. City Administrator Todd Feland pointed out that the broad, open parking space around the mall, surrounded by a ring road, could be ripe for residential and commercial development.

“New urban developments, they're not seas of parking,” he said. “They're buildings that are facing curb lines, they're buildings that are mixed-use, so people can live, work and play in a specific property."

The city also plans to talk in detail with GK Development about tools to boost local development, which include a range of tax-relief policies the city often applies to other large projects. One of the highest-profile examples of such benefits is the new mixed-use downtown Hugo’s development, which results in steep tax discounts on new property value added to the property – which, in addition to a new grocery store, will also include an Alerus bank branch and dozens of residential units.

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"How do we drive more retail experiences in the community, at the Columbia Mall or wherever in town, and how can we move forward with those developments together?” Feland said. "Downtowns have become reborn. How can we do the same strategy – similar strategies – in, we'll call them, commercial mall areas?"

The discussion is timely. Barry Wilfahrt, who leads the local chamber, said market research data from Buxton, the Texas analytics firm, has been provided and will result in public recommendations in coming months. Wilfahrt expects that data to help guide not just the mall project, but the community.

The meeting also comes as the Columbia Mall – and traditional retail around the country – are beset by pressures brought by consumers’ migration to the internet. Within the last several years, Columbia has lost Macy’s, Sears and a smattering of other stores, such as Shoe Carnival and Chico’s and Rue 21.

UND economist David Flynn points out that those pressures are not just about customers’ ability to price-compare, but also about customers’ knowledge that if they venture out the door, they might find most of what they’re looking for. Meanwhile, if they stay home and surf the web, they’ll likely find all of it.

“Shopping is not just about the acquisition of goods anymore. It's about experiences and what the retail experience is,” Flynn said.

And though he doesn’t profess to know all the answers, he said that by grappling with what else the mall could become, the city is on the right track.

“There's still going to be some uphill struggles in that regard, but those are the right exercises … to be engaged in at this time,” he said.

GK Development, through Columbia Mall General Manager Justin Valinski, declined to comment for this story. But when the company last visited Grand Forks, in June 2019, its representatives told the Herald that GK was on a path to accomplish goals that have been in the works.

“Now, we’re meeting with the city and getting the finishing touches to make everything happen,” Evan Shtulman said at the time.

What the group was working on wasn’t divulged.

“Once we get signed leases, we’ll announce it to the public,” Shtulman said.