In the Iron Range, as in many places across America, small cities are wondering how to rejuvenate the very retail establishments that we once thought would breathe new life into the local economy.
I was born the year Hibbing’s Irongate Mall opened in 1979. The late ad manager at the Hibbing Daily Tribune once told me the high school band played and the people of this flagship city on Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range rejoiced, reveling in the chain stores, video arcade, two restaurants and three-screen movie theater. It was there I waited in line to see the re-release of my first movie, “Pinocchio,” my dad in his work Dickies blowing Winston cigarette smoke to the heavens of the tall red ceilings of the lobby.
Earlier this year I walked my sons through that same mall, or at least the parts not cordoned off from the public after the Kmart closed. The surviving J.C. Penney and Sears stores stand in contrast to the darkened alley of shuttered storefronts, most scarred with the remnants of signs for stores that closed before my oldest was born in 2005.
In one storefront a collection of construction equipment and plywood rested against some kind of small hut. Built ostensibly as last year’s holiday decoration, it sat amid the ruins. My 5-year-old offered the sad commentary, “Dad, if this store was open and we could go in there, we could play in that house.”
A consultant reported on Hibbing’s economic condition three years ago, listing the mall as a major problem for which few have developed solutions other than wait, hope and pray, perhaps at the new evangelical church that meets in the old Kmart. City officials speak of the mall with sad sighs and resignation. Things must get much better or much worse for anything to change.
The flags of the many nations of Iron Range immigrants still grace the ceilings, but if you’re looking for where the grandchildren of the Ingstads, Pocrnics and Aronens shop today, you’ll have to go to Wal-Mart, Duluth, Minneapolis or, increasingly, their phones and computers, as they shop online.
There are four malls on the Iron Range, all of them facing amplified versions of the same challenges that perplex malls in other small cities around the country. Once the dominant trend in retail, these hulking buildings were gobbled up by corporations slow to recognize the changing local economies, jacking up rent just as many shops and franchises were on the ropes.
The Consumerist website reported last winter that malls in small and medium cities are failing at an alarming rate, with many more expected to give out within the decade. Fundamentally, malls require dense population centers with relative affluence, two things in short supply in rural and Rust Belt places.
In addition, retail trends are pushing development outward. Stores want their own buildings, on a highway, on the edge of town (precisely so that people don’t have to go into town to shop). In most cases, the new stores are just a shade farther out than the “old” malls. When Wal-Mart opened in Hibbing a decade ago, the teetering Irongate Mall took a hard hit, losing its anchor store and many others. While the mall is still open (and, management would want to me say, attempting to attract new stores), the wound looks mortal from the outside. Hibbing’s “other” mall, the Mesabi, has mostly relegated itself to office space in between a grocery store and fleet supply retailer.
The sad irony is that the malls that are now emptying in regions like the Iron Range were once heralded as an opportunity for these towns to survive the fall of traditional downtown businesses. Built right before and amid the collapse of the local economy in the early 1980s, the malls expedited the thinning of downtown retail. Now, strip-mall retail is finishing off the downtown and taking the malls with them.
The development pattern of Iron Range towns hasn’t been dramatically different from what many small towns have gone through. And it’s just as self-defeating in most instances. It’s reached a point where a person in Hibbing thinks almost nothing of driving to Duluth, 80 miles south, to buy all the big-ticket items at Christmas or back-to-school time. Why not? If you have to practically leave town to shop your local store, the stores in bigger cities must be better, right?
As the Iron Range seeks its footing in the new economy of our century, these dying spaces confound leaders of both the old school and the new. The mall is too debt-leveraged to tear down, too overpriced to buy and too expensive to attract new retailers or foot traffic. It sits on the city’s busiest highway, next to a wild mix of newer box stores, vibrant strip malls and empty industrial buildings singed with neglect.
Specters like this fan across the small towns and blue-collar regions of the United States. It will be up to the people to reclaim them, presenting the central challenge of the next generation on the Iron Range and beyond.
Aaron J. Brown is the author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range” and instructor of communication at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (kaxe.org). He represents the fifth generation of his family to live on the Iron Range, the first not to work as a miner or mechanic.