Valley West to drop 'mall' as it searches for new place in Des Moines retail landscape
National retail distress is emptying rural regional malls such as in Ottumwa. Rodney White, firstname.lastname@example.org
Despite a growing number of vacant storefronts, Valley West Mall officials say they are committed to making the West Des Moines mall a destination for people seeking food, entertainment and, yes, shopping.
But it won't be business as usual.
Watson Centers Inc., the mall's Minneapolis-based owner, is working on a redevelopment plan that will transform the 44-year-old shopping center, adding more restaurants and entertainment venues, said Paul Stender, Valley West's general manager.
The "mixed-use" project could take up to 10 years and even include apartments for young professionals, he said.
Across the U.S., as well as here in Iowa, once-flourishing malls are struggling to remain relevant as more shoppers go online.
People shopping in brick-and-mortar stores want experiences that malls are not providing, said Nancy Abram, marketing professor at the University of Iowa.
"The mall just isn't popular anymore," she said. "It’s not the only thing to do and only place to go."
That's true everywhere, but Valley West Mall faces some unique challenges with Jordan Creek Town Center, the metro's largest and most popular shopping destination, just 10 minutes down the road.
► We know what's opening and closing: Get business updates in your inbox
"Do we stop at Valley West or do we go to Jordan Creek and do everything?" Abram said. "As close as those two are, I’m surprised Valley West didn’t have a demise sooner."
Valley West took a big hit when Younkers closed in 2018, leaving more than 200,000 square feet of empty space on the south side of the mall.
Von Maur, one of two remaining anchor stores, has signaled its could close its Valley West Mall location once it opens a new store at Jordan Creek in 2022. And J.C. Penney, the other anchor, is facing financial hardships as it prepares to close 24 stores amidst falling sales.
If J.C. Penney and Von Maur both close, Abram doesn't think Valley West can survive.
"These businesses leave places when they no longer make money," she said. "They’re not trying to put the community to bed. If they’re making a buck, they’ll hang in there. "
Stender said the occupancy rate at the mall is around 75 percent. A recent walk-through found 21 vacant storefronts and two food court spots unoccupied.
Valley West — which plans to rebrand itself as Valley West Commons — wants to begin work on the redevelopment project this year, Stender said.
The first order of business is finding new tenants for the Younkers space and adding new stores and potentially restaurants or entertainment venues to the massive parking lot on the south end of the property.
“Things continually change within our industry and you have to try and stay on top of it as much as possible and stay ahead of it,” Stender said. “It’s going to be exciting for the community.”
'It’s very much a prime location'
West Des Moines officials are working on a redevelopment plan for the commercial district between University Avenue and Interstate Highway 235 from 22nd Street west to Interstate Highway 35/80.
The area includes large retail centers such as the Shoppes at Three Fountains, Water Tower Place, Governor Square and the strip mall along 22nd Street where Gordmans is located, as well as office buildings and restaurants along Westown Parkway.
“Most of that was built in the '70s or early '80s,” said Clyde Evans, West Des Moines economic development director. “Some of the stuff is starting to show age.”
While many of those retail centers boast high occupancy rates, the Shoppes at Valley West, just south of the mall, has several unoccupied buildings, including the former TGI Friday's and Fitness World buildings.
The property owner submitted plans to the city in 2017 to tear down the aging buildings and replace them with three new restaurants and a medical clinic, but, as of yet, that hasn't happened.
Part of West Des Moines' redevelopment plan could include financial support for Valley West Mall, Evans said.
“It’s very much a prime location,” he said. “The nature of retail is evolving and changing. Places have to evolve and change with them.”
In January, Des Moines approved a $4.8 million development agreement to support Merle Hay Mall, which lost both Younkers and Sears stores last year.
The city said it wants Merle Hay to attract more convenience retailers, like Target, for neighborhood shoppers, and destination venues, like Flix Brewhouse, that can draw customers from throughout the metro.
Polk County approved a $2.5 million loan to help Merle Hay Mall's owner purchase the vacant anchor spots and redevelop them. The county recently approved another $1 million loan to the mall.
Valley West Mall and West Des Moines have not approached Polk County with any plans or requests for assistance, Polk County Supervisor Robert Brownell. He said the county is willing to listen.
"Most of the time our economic development money goes toward things that bring jobs," Brownell said. "This is a case where that’s not tied to a job situation, which makes all five of us (supervisors) a little uncomfortable, but you weigh the pros and cons and you land on a loan with securities."
West Des Moines Councilman John Mickelson said he’s unsure about using public money to support the mall.
Renee Hardman, a West Des Moines councilwoman, said Valley West needs to find a new approach, but she’s not certain the city should spend money to help that transition.
“As someone who worked at the mall in college and visited it every week, it’s really sad for me to see,” she said. “It’s vanishing, it really is.”
'You’ve just got to roll with the punches'
Joshua Kramer has owned Sonny’s Salon in Valley West Mall since 1995. He's witnessed the mall's decline first hand — starting with the arrival of Jordan Creek and then the exodus of national retail chains.
He reduced the size of his store and went from 16 to 12 employees after Jordan Creek opened. Fewer people buy their hair care products in the store anymore, he said, instead choosing to buy online.
But the salon is still doing well, Kramer said. He has a regular client base that returns to mall to visit his store.
“You’ve just got to roll with the punches,” he said. “We used to be ‘the mall,’ but then Jordan Creek came. It’s sad to see the stores gone and people are worried and people are trying to figure out what’s going on, but no one’s said anything.”
He likes the idea of adding more entertainment options. Hopefully, something can breathe life back into the shuttered Younkers space, he said.
“Maybe it’s bringing a movie theater back. That would rejuvenate the mall,” he said. “Dave and Busters — something new to the mall. It’s so big, there’s 200,000 square feet over there.”