The only mall for miles

The one place where old-fash­ioned malls are beat­ing Ama­zon: Small-town Amer­ica. In Pue­blo, Colo., peo­ple drive 100 miles or more to shop and so­cial­ize at the new town square.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY JILL ROTHEN­BERG

Hair freshly done from the beauty par­lor on a re­cent Fri­day morn­ing, Ada Clark, 93, and her daugh­ter Carol, 63, met in front of the J.C. Pen­ney in the Pue­blo Mall, about 100 miles south of Den­ver. Their af­ter­noon plan: a walk around the mall, fol­lowed by lunch at Red Lob­ster.

When the mall was built in 1976, Pue­blo was a boom­ing steel town. The Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. was the city’s largest em­ployer, and a now-empty meat­pack­ing plant also of­fered good wages. The mall — with its 1,100 re­tail jobs — has out­lasted them both. It’s also the so­cial hub for the city — and for the many small towns east to Kansas and south to New Mex­ico.

“Any time I get out of town to go to the mall and maybe to Sam’s Club, I guar­an­tee that within an hour or so, I’m go­ing to run into some­one I know,” said Steve Fran­cis, 60, of La­mar, a town of nearly 8,000 peo­ple 120 miles east of Pue­blo near the Kansas bor­der. “You take your fam­ily, your neigh­bors, and you make a day of it. The Pue­blo Mall isn’t just the only game in town two hours away, it’s the only game in town for three coun­ties.”

The Pue­blo Mall is an out­lier in the age of Ama­zon.com, when socks and laun­dry de­ter­gent and tele­vi­sions — nearly any­thing you can think of — can be de­liv­ered to your front stoop within hours. The rise of on­line shop­ping has sum­moned a death knell for some of the old stan­dard-bear­ers of re­tail. (Jef­frey P. Be­zos, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ama­zon, owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.)

Macy’s and J.C. Pen­ney, for in­stance, have in

re­cent years re­ported crip­pling losses and wide­spread store clo­sures. When those big an­chor stores close, sub­ur­ban malls find it hard to re­place them. Many ’60s- and ’70s-era en­closed malls have been aban­doned, razed or reimag­ined.

“With de­part­ment store clos­ings, many malls will have to get cre­ative with how they uti­lize space,” said Amy Raskin, who fol­lows ur­ban­iza­tion trends as chief in­vest­ment of­fi­cer at Chevy Chase Trust. She said many malls na­tion­wide have con­verted space into mul­ti­fam­ily res­i­den­tial units, whereas more ru­ral malls may take on non­stan­dard an­chor ten­ants, such as a Wal­mart.

De­spite Pue­blo’s three Wal­marts and the ar­rival of a Dick’s Sport­ing Goods and an Ulta Beauty store, the Pue­blo Mall is bustling. On week­ends, its nearly 3,000 out­door park­ing spa­ces fill up. In­side are a few relics of the golden age of Amer­i­can malls: Amy’s Hall­mark, Claire’s, Kay Jewel­ers. And in the food court is an Or­ange Julius, with its old­school clas­sics and a mod­ern up­date: smooth­ies.

The mall does not track vis­i­tors, ac­cord­ing to man­ager Ti­mothy Sch­weitzer, but based on sales trends, he says traf­fic has in­creased 3 per­cent to 5 per­cent in the past year. He said the mall’s av­er­age sales per square foot are healthy, hold­ing at around $400 over the past six months. He at­trib­uted this to the big­ger­name ten­ants that have opened in re­cent years, in­clud­ing Bath and Body Works, Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret, Char­lotte Russe, Hot Topic and Zumi.

It draws kids from all over on the week­ends. “It’s still not un­usual to see out-of-town teams from La Junta [65 miles], Rocky [54 miles] or Walsen­burg [53 miles] walk around the mall af­ter soc­cer or bas­ket­ball games,” said Carol Clark, who works for the CW Rail­way and lives 25 miles south in Colorado City.

Clark says that when the mall was built, down­town Pue­blo suf­fered and many of its stores closed. The mall be­came Pue­blo’s new town square.

Now it’s among the city’s main em­ploy­ers, along with two hos­pi­tals, in­clud­ing the state-op­er­ated Colorado Men­tal Health In­sti­tute. State and fed­eral corrections (there are 13 pris­ons and the nearby fed­eral Su­per Max in ad­join­ing coun­ties) also pro­vide jobs, as well as a bur­geon­ing le­gal mar­i­juana in­dus­try that emerged af­ter the pas­sage of Colorado’s Amend­ment 64.

As rev­enue from on­line shop­ping climbs na­tion­ally — up 14.7 per­cent in the first quar­ter, com­pared with a year ago — re­gional malls like Pue­blo’s can com­pete by tai­lor­ing them­selves to their con­sumers, said David Mitroff of Pied­mont Av­enue Con­sult­ing in Oak­land, Calif.

“Peo­ple are or­der­ing on­line, and that changes the whole shop­ping dy­namic,” Mitroff said. “But now the mall has barber shops, gyms, lo­cal stores and other things you can’t just buy on Ama­zon. Or you can go see what they have. You can touch it.”

Shop­pers like Carol Clark do or­der on­line — in her case, 30-pound bags of spe­cialty dog food that can be ob­tained cheaper and more con­ve­niently that way than by buy­ing it in Pue­blo.

“The mall, whether in Pue­blo or in Den­ver where my daugh­ters live, is more so­cial,” she said, “and we may or may not buy some­thing.”

Civic pride and tra­di­tion also play a part. In some mar­kets with older re­gional malls, peo­ple buy from a tra­di­tional an­chor store such as a Sears be­cause it’s Amer­i­can, Mitroff said.

“It re­in­forces ‘this is our mall, this is our city, let’s shop there,’ ” he said. “Es­pe­cially if it’s the same price, why wouldn’t you do that? And if city of­fi­cials say, ‘Do you un­der­stand that when you buy at J.C. Pen­ney here, we ac­tu­ally get tax rev­enue off of that? But if you buy from Ama­zon, we don’t.’ ”

Shop­pers in south­ern Colorado are of­ten more will­ing to drive longer dis­tances for their re­tail pur­chases, es­pe­cially for durable goods such as re­frig­er­a­tors and other ap­pli­ances, ac­cord­ing to Chris Marku­son, di­rec­tor of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for Pue­blo County.

Two other fac­tors work in Pue­blo’s fa­vor: the dis­tance to other shop­ping cen­ters and the small-town de­mo­graph­ics. Pue­blo’s me­dian house­hold in­come is $36,367, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent 2015 sta­tis­tics, com­pared with the state’s $63,909.

“What this means is that these malls are safe,” said Brian Harper, CEO of New York City-based Rouse Prop­er­ties, which owns 34 malls in 19 states. “If you’re, say, the third or fourth mall in Cleve­land, Ohio, you’ve got to rein­vent.”

The Farm­ing­ton Mall in Far­mFord in­g­ton, N.M., about 300 miles south­west of Pue­blo and on the edge of the Navajo Na­tion Reser­va­tion, is a re­gional fo­cal point.

“The Farm­ing­ton Mall is a per­fect ex­am­ple of a mall that will al­ways just be a mall,” Harper said. “A big night out in Farm­ing­ton, New Mex­ico — and it’s great — is Red Lob­ster and a foot­ball game after­ward — it’s ‘Fri­day Night Lights.’ Or it’s Red Lob­ster and the mall or vice versa. So it serves as the hub for Farm­ing­ton, be­cause there’s no down­town.”

But Harper said that even re­gional shop­ping cen­ters miles from ma­jor metropoli­tan cen­ters can adapt and of­fer some­thing new to con­sumers.

Back at the Pue­blo Mall on a Fri­day af­ter­noon, Bruce and Jen­nifer Miller watch their 2-yearold son and other kids in a small in­door play area near Sears “When I went to the mall as a kid, it was like ‘Yes!’ and sort of a big deal,” says Bruce Miller, a Pue­blo na­tive who works in con­struc­tion. “But when I was a kid, there was no play­ground. My son re­ally loves it.”

The mall holds com­mu­nity events through­out the year, in­clud­ing a “Walk with a Doc” mall-walk­ing pro­gram, health fairs, school con­certs and, re­cently, a Child Abuse Preven­tion Aware­ness Day and a “Pue­blo’s Got Talent” show­case.

In front of the play­ground is the Boot Barn, a na­tional West­ern and work­wear chain that serves peo­ple from the many ranches and farms that dot the coun­ties of south­ern Colorado. The store even stays open on hol­i­days when the rest of the mall is closed.

“We had a good day this past Easter,” store man­ager Jenni Pacheco said. “You can’t pre­dict when your work boots are go­ing to need to be re­placed, even if it’s on a hol­i­day. We have rodeos, fairs [the Colorado State Fair is held each Au­gust in Pue­blo], con­certs and even fa­ther-daugh­ter dances that keep us busy all year.”

And there are plans for new mall ten­ants, in­clud­ing en­ter­tain­ment out­lets, restau­rants, and pos­si­bly a gro­cery store, Sch­weitzer said. A Planet Fit­ness has opened, along with the women’s plus-size store Tor­rid.

On a re­cent Fri­day af­ter­noon, Toni Br­goch of La Veta, a town of 750 that is 65 miles south­west of Pue­blo, stopped by the Clin­ique counter at Dil­lard’s. Though she was on her way back from vis­it­ing her grand­chil­dren in Den­ver and could have picked up makeup at one of the larger malls, she pre­ferred to stop in Pue­blo, where she has been shop­ping for 42 years.

“When my chil­dren were young, we came to Pue­blo for doc­tor’s ap­point­ments and the mall — we’d make a day of it,” she said. “Grow­ing up in Walsen­burg, we had a J.C. Pen­ney, where my mom worked, and a Mont­gomery Ward mail-or­der cen­ter. But now there’s just a Safe­way. Tak­ing the stores out of these towns hurts them. I hope this mall stays.”

MATTHEW STAVER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Pue­blo Mall in Pue­blo, Colo., was built in 1976 and con­tin­ues to draw cus­tomers, even in the age of on­line shop­ping.

PHO­TOS BY MATTHEW STAVER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

The Pue­blo Mall is of­ten bustling. Steve Fran­cis goes there, even though he lives 120 miles away. “You take your fam­ily, your neigh­bors, and you make a day of it,” he says. Be­low, grand­mother Joni Na­jera, great-grand­fa­ther Emilio Otero and 10-month-old Ju­lian Otero eat in the food court.

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