‘We’re still here’

New tenant Silvio Guerra Jr. and his wife Jessica plan a grand opening in January for Making More Than Custom, their new shop featuring screenprinted custom T shirts, mugs and other specialties. (Photo/Russ Hanson)
Manager Andrew Neilsen, standing in front of the Center Mall’s largest tenant Furniture for Less, says changes are coming for the 50-year-old Moorhead center. Meanwhile, established tenants report unfounded rumors of closing have confused their customers this fall. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

As the stores and owners of the Center Mall consider their future, the biggest obstacle this fall may have been the swirling rumors that the end is near.
“Our tenants tell me everyone asks when they’re closing. The rumors have definitely hurt their business,” mall manager Andrew Nielsen reports. That’s a problem, he says, because “we’re not going anywhere.
“Everyone does agree this building has to change somehow,” he adds. “We will. It’s the ‘how’ that’s not clear yet.”
The rumors arose in September, when the Moorhead City Council reached a much-ballyhooed “predevelopment agreement” with Roers Construction to explore new uses and options for City Hall and the publicly owned property that adjoins it. While headlines focused on Roers’ taking the lead in redevelopment, the complicated arrangement with the privately owned shopping mall spurred persistent whispers that the mall, too, would be replaced or eliminated.
“People read those headlines and didn’t get any farther,” says Jacob Beck, who manages Furniture for Less, the mall’s largest store. “They come in and ask, ‘When are you closing?’
“Well, we aren’t. We’ve been here since 2010. We’re happy. The traffic is good. Obviously, if we weren’t making money, we wouldn’t be here. Most everybody around us has been here for decades, too. We’re like the youngster in the group.”
Five decades ago, the conjoined city government center and retail mall emerged from a period of horse-trading that may not be entirely clear even now. The result is an odd intersection of public and private interests. The city of Moorhead owns and maintains all the public areas of the mall – the four-story tower that houses city government, the ground-floor atrium, the hallways, the parking lots.
But the commercial area is private property. A consortium of five local investors headed by Goldmark realtor Patrick Vesey owns 80% of the building, leasing space to the businesses that occupy it: Furniture for Less, Moorhead Drug, Mane Impressions, Christopher & Banks, Merle Norman Cosmetics, Hers Styling Salon, FM Antiques and More, Everest Tikka House, Nail Pro, Jay’s Smokin’ Barbecue, Heartland Insurance, Drs. Bill and Denise Duke, and MCAM (Moorhead Community Access Media). A new shop called Making More Than Custom is nearly ready to open, and remodeling is underway for Four Elements Therapy.
The remaining 20% of private property in the mall is split among the businesses that occupy it, from Moorhead Vision Associates and Pladson-Lau Chiropractic to Puffe’s Jewelry, K & Krafts, Centre for Hair and Wellness, The Classic, Farmers Insurance, His Styling Salon, Thai Orchid, Vic’s Bar and the newest, Therapy Services by Shelley. A yoga studio is taking shape in another privately owned space.
Almost 50 years ago, the Moorhead Center Mall was the biggest news in the city. Intended as the new incarnation of the aging downtown, the expansive mall – with its cobblestone floors, broad census of retail establishments and upscale, spanking-new style – opened its doors a few years after West Acres brought the cutting-edge indoor-mall concept to Fargo. Unlike that first indoor mall amidst cultivated field beyond Fargo’s west edge, Moorhead’s mall rose where the venerable but deteriorating downtown business district had stood. It had been cleared in the wave of urban renewal that swept both cities in the late 1960s. Unlike its neighbor, where demolition was concentrated on the dilapidated blocks east of Broadway and along Main Avenue, the local improvement district shaved away the heart of the historic business district.
Five decades of retail changes and dislocations, culminating with the high-profile loss of Herberger’s last year, have made change inevitable and unavoidable. Amidst Thus, the rumors – and a good measure of optimism despite the uncertainties ahead.
Manager Nielsen accepted the job of heading mall operations just last April after years with Bonanzaville USA and his own genealogical research firm, as well as management of several buildings off Broadway. “Most people here are optimistic about what’s happening,” he says. “Everyone knows we won’t survive in the present form.
“That’s why I accepted this job,” he continues. “When I heard about the remodeling plan that’s in the works, it excited me. The owners were already working with an architect when the city’s ‘predevelopment’ agreement with Roers came up. All we ask for in working with them is transparency about their plans. We’re still moving forward, but we may need some help from the city. After all, we still share space here.”
Nielsen hints the majority owners may reach agreement soon on the future of the two-story space that anchors the mall. Pressed for details, he’ll say only that three options are under consideration. Two are potential rental clients – one a regular retail establishment, the other a private entertainment company. The third would be what he calls a “public-private partnership” to remodel the space for a combination of dining and entertainment.
“The Moorhead Center Mall doesn’t want to be West Acres. It doesn’t want to be downtown Fargo,” he says. “We just want to be our own mix of places that build our own unique community – places to go that serve people’s needs and where they’re comfortable.”
As Silvio Guerra Jr. and his wife Jessica worked on the specialty store they expect to open in January, they’re optimistic that the future holds good things for them and their new neighborhood. “When I told people we were coming over here, they were shocked. They told me, ‘Don’t go there. It’s dead,’” Silvio reports. The experienced businessman, who has worked with Sonic restaurants and owned a printing company, scoffs at the naysayers. “They’re wrong. This place is coming alive.”

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