MOUNTAIN IRON — It was once home to a Blockbuster video rental store, a Great Clips salon, and until recently, Domino’s Pizza. It remains the residence of a Dollar Tree, Edward Jones financial office, Auto Value shop, and the locally owned Advanced Optical eye care center, and P/K Images photography studio.
The Plaza 53 strip mall, located along Highway 53 in Mountain Iron, has housed several chain stores and small Iron Range businesses since being converted into a shopping center in the 1990s.
In its first life it was abode to Super One grocery and a Pamida store.
The 79,800-square-foot building, however — and its parking lot, especially — have seen better days. In May 2017, the Mountain Iron City Council attempted to address the parking lot issue, voting 3-2 to send a letter to the owners, “strongly encouraging” an upgrade of the pitted and rough lot surface for the safety of patrons.
The lot was never repaired. The mall’s occupancy has dwindled through the years, as well.
But the condition of Plaza 53 is set to change, so it goes.
Brad Schumacher, the mayor of Princeton, Minn., a city set 30 miles east of St. Cloud, has big plans for the strip mall.
He is the new owner and operator, after its closing on the sale June 30. Reached by phone, Schumacher, who doubles as a realtor, said he intends to prove to residents that improvements will be made through “actions and results instead of words.”
The new owner acknowledged there have been previous snags for the structure. A proposed sale was announced last year. However, that developer never closed on the deal and the mall’s future ownership remained in limbo.
Schumacher said his focus is to give the multi-tenant mall a “facelift” and to bring in additional businesses. The project will begin with a parking lot renovation in August, he said.
A mill and overlay technique, which involves the removal of the top layer of pavement using a milling machine and resurfacing with a new layer of bituminous pavement, will be used.
The owner said he is currently negotiating with a corporate sub sandwich shop, new to the Quad Cities area, to take up residence at one end of the mall. It will have a drive-through option, which Schumacher noted is especially important for safety concerns during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
He is also working on a lease agreement with a corporate salon.
Dollar Tree, Schumacher said, had requested during its last lease renewal to expand, and he “hopes to bring talks forward” to provide the store with additional retail space.
“The end goal for the plaza is for everyone to have front retail space,” including individual, front-door access. While some tenants already have that, other locations are only accessible through a mall entrance.
That is “the new model for retail,” Schumacher said. The term “mall” is being phased out. Today’s trend is for stores and businesses to have individual access, which allows for varying hours and more individuality.
The owner of Virginia’s Thunderbird Mall, RockStep Capital, last week announced the mall will be rebranded as “Uptown Virginia.” RockStep CEO Andy Weiner said in an open letter that the word “mall” no longer reflects the transformation trend from mostly retail and restaurant space into a combination of retail and non-traditional uses, such as medical and government offices, community college, university, school locations, fitness centers and banks.
He added in the letter that the pandemic has sped up the ongoing transformation. “COVID is creating an environment for all of us to be more creative and to continue to move our properties in a positive direction,” he wrote.
Schumacher said a portion of the Plaza 53 building is also one of a few proposed sites for the East Range Academy of Technology and Science (ERATS). Sixth Judicial District Judge Robert C. Friday ruled last week that ERATS must vacate the former Spectrum Health building in Midway Virginia by Aug. 31.
The charter school’s lease at Spectrum was terminated following the judge’s decision to grant an eminent domain request to Rock Ridge for the future location of the school consolidation of the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert districts.
The matter is currently “up in the air,” Schumacher said. ERATS would only occupy part of the building, and “we will continue the plan with or without” the school as a tenant.
Cathy Kishel, co-owner of P/K Images (the former Grove Studio) at Plaza 53, said she and fellow photographer Paul Pluskwik are excited for the building’s renovation. The studio is one of the inside tenants. Having its own outside entrance will offer better access and visibility, she said.
Current tenants had long been hoping for a “hands-on owner” to purchase the mall and to build it up to full occupancy, she added. “This is a much-needed change for the building.”
Mountain Iron Mayor Gary Skalko said the city has been trying to find a developer for Plaza 53 for several years, but previous purchase agreements fell through.
“It’s a great location right off (Highway) 53,” he said. Mountain Iron Drive, the frontage road traversing the front of Plaza 53, is also currently being widened and repaired and should be completed soon, he said. The city obtained a $350,000 Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board grant to defray the cost of the project.
“The city will work (with the new owner) in any way we can,” the mayor added, such as implementing property tax abatements “if they want to expand” or “working with the IRRRB down the road.”
He added that “not a lot has been happening with this virus (COVID-19),” particularity “on the economic front.” Plaza 53’s new ownership and renovation plans “are a plus for the city and the region, too.”