Editorial: Malls need to shop for new identities
Concord is in the midst of a repurposing of historic proportions. Four of the city’s elementary schools, three more than a century old, were closed.
One was torn down and replaced by a new school, another is in the process of becoming a community center and two, the Walker and Rumford schools, are back on the tax rolls.
The Walker School, now the home of Binnie Media, has become a showpiece, and the old Rumford School is coming into its own as a community arts center. But the change has just begun. Two of the city’s larger churches, Sacred Heart, a gorgeous sandstone edifice on Pleasant Street, and St. Peter’s Church on North State Street are up for sale. What happens with the buildings will help determine the character of their respective neighborhoods.
Concord’s Main Street, which like its counterparts across the nation, suffered the flight of its anchor stores from downtown to a mall, is about to be reconfigured. Today those anchor stores, notably Sears and J.C. Penney, are on the fiscal ropes, fighting to remain relevant in the age of online shopping. Last week, Rouse Properties, the owner of the Steeplegate Mall, defaulted on a $47 million loan payment due on the mall.
The mall, which is bright, nicely landscaped and in excellent repair, is apparently no longer worth $47 million, so, like an underwater homeowner, Rouse is giving the keys to the mall back to the bank. Nationally, about one third of the nation’s malls are dead or dying, an estimate reflected in headlines like “Are Malls Over?” in a March issue of the New Yorker.
Carlos Baia, the Concord city manager in charge of development, expects that the mall will be sold to a new buyer at a bargain price and that buyer will make changes to breathe life into a style of retailing that changed America. It’s not just malls but big-box stores in general, save for discounters like Costco, that retail experts say are flirting with extinction.
The huge empty store that once was home to electronics goods merchant Circuit City remains empty. Its onetime competitor, Best Buy, is struggling to adapt to a generation of customers who browse brick-and-mortar stores but buy for less online.
It’s not too soon for Concord planners to think about a repurposing of Steeplegate Mall. The internet, along with free delivery by mega-retailers like Amazon, has changed the nature of shopping. Social media has made it easy for teens, who once flocked to malls to see and be seen while spending money, to hang out with friends while staying home.
“Shoppers Are Fleeing Physical Stores” read a headline in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. “Retail store counts show shopper visits declined by 5 percent or more in every month for the past two years,” the Journal said.
Retail stalwarts like Target and even Wal-Mart have seen business slow. It’s more than the lingering effect of the long recession.
Millennials, people in their 20s and 30s whose predecessors once filled car trunks with stuff, shop but they do so online. And they aren’t big buyers. One-third of those surveyed for one study said they only buy essentials, often for less than full price.
The trends in retailing have moved in favor of small, eclectic shops in settings that offer a social experience, in other words, in downtowns like the one Concord is about to reconfigure.
Some of America’s malls have been torn down to create parks and plazas, others have been reconfigured to include housing and facilities offering health care and other services, a few reinvented as community colleges or office space.
Concord’s mall was built just a quarter-century ago. It probably has a lot of life left in it. But an array of forces suggest that sooner or later, to survive, it will have to become a very different place.