Center Mall redevelopment deal inches forward

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Changes are coming to the Center Mall. That sure thing was set in motion in 2019, when the Moorhead City Council signed an official agreement with Roers Development for what was termed “pre-development” of the nearly 50-year-old downtown mall and surrounding area.

Two years later, rumors and not-for-attribution statements abound. But what has actually been accomplished? Unconfirmed reports suggest that progress is inching forward on some sort of buy-out for redevelopment of the highly visible heart of the city. But so far, none of the parties involved – including the majority owner and landlord of most of the mall plus the owners of about a dozen condominium-style storefronts under its roof – is willing to say exactly what.

Says Roers COO Danielle Paulus, “We are meeting individually with each owner. Our goal is to find a win-win solution for each existing business as the project develops.” She adds, “We also want to see downtown Moorhead grow as redevelopment will present great opportunities for new businesses to locate there.”

Separately, Roers is working with the city on a strategy for the city-owned property that’s inextricably part of the plan. That includes not only City Hall, the mall parking lots, the ramp and a large portion of the mall interior, but also the Moorhead Public Library, which is looking for a new, expanded location.

The fate of the mall is complicated by its intricate ownership arrangement, deemed at its inception as one of the most unique in the nation. Formulated at the dawn of the 1970s as part of the city’s urban renewal, the plan mingled public and private ownership in a partnership that’s still unusual today.

When it opened in 1973, the mall’s store owners purchased their spaces as condominiums. The city, however, provided and still owns the public spaces throughout the mall: the atrium, the bathrooms, all hallways, the parking lots surrounding the site, and the parking ramp that was built at the west end in the early 1990s. The four-story City Hall anchors the project, rising above Center Avenue at Fifth Street.

Perhaps oddly, the city is not included in the property owners’ group in which decisions are made. The Roers spokeswoman says negotiations for the city’s property and the vision for new facilities will be tackled separately after arrangements have been solidified with the private owners.

Forty-eight years ago, the mall touted its specialty shopping in the spirit that’s still proclaimed on its signage: “Another great place to shop.” Its seven original owners include some familiar downtown names displaced by the urban renewal project, including Palace Clothiers, Neubarth’s Jewelry and Moorhead Drug, the only original tenant that remains. In the late 1990s it reached a high of 46 merchants and professional offices. Ten years later, that had dropped by almost half. Today fewer than 20 remain, along with four eateries and the offices of Moorhead Community Access Television and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Today 80% of the square footage in the 216,000-square-foot mall – expanded over the years to five times its original footprint – is owned by an investment group headed by managing partner Patrick Vesey and Kelly Zander that’s part of the Goldmark Real Estate Investment Trust. The investors purchased it 15 years ago following the death of Ron Ohe, one of the original developers who acquired that property as stores were shuttered and condo owners sold out.

The remaining 20% interest is split among current condo owners. While several confirmed they have been talking to Roers about selling their property, none agreed to comment on the record.

Adjoining properties to the east of the mall, including the former Alan Evans Bridal Shop and United Sugars, have recently been acquired by other developers – the former by Justin Berg, the latter by Kevin Bartram’s Sterling Companies. Bartram has been involved in a variety of already-successful projects including the Simon Warehouse Lofts and 9Thirteen Lofts. Berg is developing the 77-acre Prairie Parkway property south of 40th Avenue and east of 20th Street South.

Whatever happens with the mall will become a key component of the overarching vision for redevelopment along Center Avenue, says city manager Dan Mahli. That vision is spelled out in the downtown Moorhead master plan unveiled last December by consulting group Stantec after a year of intense discussion with a number of community groups and residents. It includes an area of mixed development, combining renewed commercial ventures with a substantial increase in the number of residents who live in the downtown area.

“The standard we’re reaching for is 1,000 residents within a five-minute walk,” city manager Dan Mahli says, describing the goal for not only the mall area but developments along Main, Center, and First, Second and Third Avenues South from the river eastward to 17th Street. An oft-stated target first voiced in 2018 is development of 500 residential units – apartments and condos – in five years. To date, 300 have been built, are under construction, or have building permits. Not only will retail and hospitality businesses be attracted by that easy customer base; the public and private spaces, along with businesses, will provide a critical mass to bring others downtown.

Paulus, the Roers spokesperson, cites needs uncovered by the master plan “for opportunities for Moorhead residents to live, work and have entertainment options downtown.” It also identified current areas that are underutilized, something universally acknowledged by the consultants, city leaders and residents alike. She adds, “We are excited to be a part of moving this process along to kick off the start of the downtown redevelopment efforts.”

But just what lies ahead, and when will the public learn about it? So far, that remains squarely in the realm of hints and rumors. Stay tuned.

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