Don’t call it a mall

Irongate Plaza as seen in 2018. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown

I once hung out in Iron Range shopping malls for fun. I didn’t even need to “get my steps.” No, I went to the mall to meet friends, buy Vanilla Ice cassettes, and sip something called “cappuccino” while surfing this new thing called “the internet” at a locally-owned mall coffee shop. It was very exciting in an entirely non-ironic way.

Those days are long gone, of course. The gurgling automatic coffee dispenser at the Holiday station bears no meaningful resemblance to the cute brunette who served my first mocha latte. Consumer retail traffic shifted to big box stores starting 20 years ago and then moved online ten years ago. Across the country small- to medium-sized malls died while others trudged on in a zombie-like state.

Of course, this is not sustainable, even for absentee ownership unaffected by the blight. After all, these malls — once innovations in American consumerism — still occupy valuable real estate along major highways. They also represent millions of taxpayer dollars in elaborate infrastructure built for one purpose: a mall.

Exceptional shops, stores, and specialty businesses carry on — downtown, in malls, or elsewhere — but the model of how they operate keeps changing. Now dollar stores, like carrion birds, nip at the edges of Range towns. We’re watching a transition that isn’t over yet.

In recent years local malls have made various efforts to rebuild their image while impatient residents and business leaders wait for change. And change is coming, at least rhetorically.

For instance, the Thunderbird Mall in Virginia is no more, at least in name. The building remains, as do the tenants. But a July 27 Mesabi Tribune story explained that the facility’s new name will become Uptown Virginia. The branding motif comes from the mall’s new owners RockStep Capital.

On July 30, the Tribune reported that the Plaza 53 strip mall in Mountain Iron had new ownership, committed to a similar rebranding effort.

This follows the transition of Hibbing’s former Irongate Mall to Irongate Plaza several years ago. Today, Irongate’s new owner, Buckingham Property Management of New York, imagines that facility as a hybrid retail and office complex. The Irongate Plaza’s largest tenant is no longer a store like the late Kmart; rather, it’s the U.S. Veterans Affairs Clinic.

In Duluth, the same might be said of Simon Properties’ Miller Hill Mall, once northern Minnesota’s gold standard of teenage shopping delights. Now the Miller Hill Mall converts old stores like Sears and Younkers into medical facilities. In fact, the same Gen X teenagers that once hung out together in the mall might soon recover from hip surgery in the same building. Perhaps one day a crematorium will occupy the erstwhile soft pretzel dispensary, bringing it all full circle.

[See also: “In Northern Minnesota, economic trends collide“]

All of these changes stem from a pressing question. What is the value of a place when its primary purpose becomes something different? Malls were once seen as the next great standard in retailing. Nevertheless, they failed to outlast their linoleum floors. Meantime, small cities spent that time building tens of millions in infrastructure around the malls, sucking the traffic and very life out of their much more durable assets downtown.

In fact, the only retail stores able to compete with the price and convenience of the latest trend — online shopping — sell quality goods and specialized services, often from lower cost downtown real estate.

The great irony in the death of malls is the rise of new opportunities downtown. Whether old malls become office buildings, sports centers, or hydroponic greenhouses, we can now live free of the assumption that Iron Range cities need to expand outward to survive. In fact, we find new, attainable ideas by simply reimagining what we already have.

When we finally realize that it’s never, ever “always been this way,” we learn we can indeed positively change the appearance, sustainability and prosperity of our communities.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, August 9, 2020 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.



  1. 1979 was a fun time to live on the Range amid seemingly limitless prosperity. I’m glad I saw it then because it will never happen here again.

    Irongate Mall opened just in time for the great strike of 1977 (“Shut it down and let it rust” was on the stickers everywhere) but after the strike they had a few good years. Then the boom lowered in 1981. The mall coasted on momentum for many years dying an agonizing death until its sorry state today.

    I’m in the check out generation now. You kids will have to figure it out for yourselves. Maybe as people flee the self destructing cities in droves we will be discovered again. Just leave the Cidiot trash behind.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.