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Column: A sad local story that began with excitement

By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — Poor Northland Mall. For me, Alyson Buschena’s story in the Daily Globe last week was a horror story. Leaks from the roof have left water accumulating on the floors where we once walked and shopped. Mold thrives along some of the mall walls. Tile is falling from the ceilings. Lighting has failed. There is a stink. Those big empty arms, east and west, remain empty and forbidding. There are posted notices banning entrance.

Oh — the heart of the mall, the center of the mall — remains vibrant. Clean and inviting, as it always was. Those beautiful terrazzo floors are maintained well. Peebles is one of the area’s most popular department stores. And Penneys. JC Penney is Worthington’s oldest retailer. JC Penney has been selling clothing and shoes and bedding to residents of the Worthington area for 86 years, since1927. Northland Cinema 5 — yeah! Commend the theater for bringing Worthington films that are current and popular.

But those big arms where we once found Kmart and Hy-Vee —those arms are falling in decay. Alyson reported police found a ceramic duck in the old Kmart auto shop. Inside the duck was a baggie with meth. Those good police dogs found still more meth. A man was found in the loft of the former Sterling Drug store.

I remember the morning of the groundbreaking for Northland Mall. That was 37 years ago, in the spring of 1976. Iver Morgan was still maintaining his farm on the mall’s west edge. What excitement there was on that mall site. Tache Teronas was secretary of Worthington’s Chamber of Commerce. Tache arranged for a large Worthington delegation to be present.

It was said the time of the main streets was past; the time of the malls had come. People talked of Southdale in Edina, 1956, the beginning of malls. Western Mall at Sioux Falls. Mall of America came to Minnesota in 1992. Amid all that mix, Worthington was to have a mall. Northland Mall, the largest mall, the only mall, between Mankato and Sioux City.

As I remember, there was not even a representative from the mall’s developers present on that groundbreaking morning. A manager had been appointed; the mall manager was there. Absentee ownership from the first day. This was the problem from the very beginning.

The whole country believed malls were the future. Developers — New York developers, often enough — moved across the land buying sites in likely communities, making plans, talking with national retailers and local retailers.

They might have been right about malls, except developers often were setting rental rates at New York and Chicago and Cleveland levels. You have to know the territory — the local territory — to establish the level of rents.

Worthington has lived a cycle of American economics. Worthington had F.W. Woolworth almost exactly in the center of main street. Worthington loved Woolworths.

“Main street is the past, malls are the future.” Word went out that there would be a mall and there would be a Kmart in the mall. Woolworth closed its doors.

But — there was a miscalculation. Word was Walmart was coming to Worthington. Free standing. Big box, as the media like to say. Kmart closed its doors.

From that time it was clear there was trouble for Northland Mall. Good Kmart. It became something of a point of pride that Worthington’s Kmart was the smallest Kmart in America. This came about when the financiers were putting together their packages of mall paper. No matter. Kmart was the biggest store of its kind in the Worthington area, and Worthington embraced it. Kmart and blue light specials. “Attention Kmart shoppers …”

There were popular stores all through the mall. Keith Galles and Leuthold’s. I bought my last suit at Leuthold’s. I took to wearing slacks and jackets after that. I didn’t know I was out of the suit market, but I was very pleased with what I bought. Dorothy Gordon brought the Hallmark store; Worthington had seen nothing like it. A book store.

There was a candy store in the beginning, and the mall was so full of stores the candy store had an outside location where the two corridors come together.

I think the whole story is a very sad story.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.