Friday, September 13, 2013

To Mall or Not to Mall?


Not so many years ago, when malls were all the rage, Walla Walla got the Blue Mountain Mall, and, except for Macy’s, the high volume stores downtown bolted for the new place.  Two things happened.  First, downtown did not die but revitalized itself to become the preferred shopping and dining venue for the community.  Downtown Macy’s prospered while mall stores such as J.C. Penny, Sears, and several others went out of business.  Second, mall walking and hanging out became the primary uses of mall space.  It’s hard to stay open if you are nothing more than indoor decoration for elderly mall walkers and bored teenagers.

The fact was that we did not have the population or income base to support a mall with all the chain stores that everyone said they wanted.  Eventually it closed its doors and fell into disrepair.  Actually, more than disrepair: it looked like a bombed out ruin in a Mideast war zone.  Several would be developers stepped in to bring it back to life, but each one turned out to be an excessively leveraged web of shell corporations effectively hiding the true owners and lenders.  They milked whatever funds and tax benefits they could, then disappeared to be replaced by even murkier interests.  The last one fled the country to avoid prosecution when he was finally uncovered.

It took years to unravel the mess so that the city could force disclosure and sale to a responsible owner able to do something with the derelict, and with a track record to back it up.  That sale was announced yesterday.  The public has not been understanding.  They could not believe that the government they so distrust did not have the power to simply take over the property and do whatever it wanted with it.  They could not understand how ownership could be hidden behind layers of shell companies with no presence other than a mail drop somewhere.  They were unwilling to recognize the difference between city and county governments.  Most of all, they wanted a nice, safe, indoor place to walk in even if they never bought much.  Better yet, they wanted a mall with those classy high end stores featured in the catalogues because that would say that Walla Walla had arrived.  

I was a little surprised myself to learn how easy it is to set up shell corporations to hide behind.  Even the NSA would have a hard time penetrating some of the legal mazes that define them.  But I digress.

Walla Walla has grown up a bit.  The wine industry has made us a destination for wine tourism, and that is slowly expanding into other areas.  Our Blue Mountains could be a huge attraction as accessible but unspoiled wilderness.  Our three colleges are ranked among the best.  We have a professional symphony orchestra, several theater companies, jazz and chamber music festivals, as well as the rodeo and demolition derby.  The county population, however, has grown slowly, and our median family income remains a modest $46,000 with about 18% below the poverty line.  Just the same, there are pockets of real wealth, and tourists spend a lot when in town.  We can support a bit more and higher end retail, a bit, not a lot.  But, do we really want a mall?

A larger urban area, the Tri-cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland, is only fifty to sixty miles away.  A less inviting stretch of desert along the Columbia River you have never seen, but transportation and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have given them the population base to support a large (ugly) mall of second level shopping, as well as every big box store and chain restaurant known to the Pacific Northwest.  There are no downtowns in the Tri-cities, just strips of store fronts here and there.  We cannot compete with that, nor do we want to.  

I believe we need to admit that we are at a point where we should boldly trade on our snob appeal as the green valley in the high desert; an oasis of culture, higher education, and premium wines, up against the beautiful Blue Mountains.  A place where bling and glitz are not welcome, but the coastal wealthy are welcome if they come with an attitude of humility and respect for local ways.  It could work.

So what will go in on the mall property?  Who knows, but whatever it becomes will have to be well balanced, respectful of downtown, and backed by patient money.

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