Austin, Minnesota is a small city of about 23,000 residents in the southern part of the state. It is just over 100 miles from the Twin Cities, and 40 miles from Rochester along Interstate 90.
Austin is famous for one thing: SPAM. Since 1937, Hormel Foods has been churning out tons of this salty, processed meat product at a factory near the interstate. There’s even a Spam Museum for those who love a little kitsch; and, those who do are also lucky, because the museum is successful and has expanded from its digs in a vacant store space in Austin’s Oak Park Mall to a larger building of its own across from the SPAM factory. If you do visit the museum, you can even take an interactive quiz hosted by none other than Minnesota Senator and Saturday Night Live alum Al Franken. That alone would almost get me to go.
I wasn’t able to dig up too much more about Oak Park Mall – the mall’s webpage states it has been around 30 years, which means it probably opened sometime in the late 1970s. The mall is located on the north edge of Austin, directly adjacent to I-90 at the exit for US 218.
Oak Park Mall is rather small – ICSC lists the leasable area at 350,000 square feet, which is appropriate given Austin’s market size and trade area. The anchors, Green Bay, Wis.-based discounter ShopKo and Iowa-based full-line department store Younkers make up about half of the total retail space.
The mall’s indoor corridor connects these two anchors, with a short cross wing near the middle. Stores inside the mall are also typical of malls in this tier, with few fashion-oriented national chains and many local offerings. Unfortunately, also typical of malls in this tier, there are many vacancies. Stores in the out-of-date directory on the mall’s website include a Do It Best Hardware Store, two chain salons, Christopher & Banks (closed early 2010), a Hallmark, Family Dollar, a nail place, an optical shop, GNC, a cookie place, mexican restaurant, Claire’s, some offices, the Austin Art Center, a sports bar, and a 7-screen movie theater. That’s about it. Sadly, the mall is on the decline, with more stores closing than opening. A Sears hometown location and Foot Locker were also recent casualties here, along with a hip-hop store called E&J Hook-Up.
In addition to being apparently unloved by shoppers, it appears that a Rochester woman hates the mall so much that, in December 2007, she intentionally drove her car into it at a high rate of speed, causing $37,000 in damage to both the building and to merchandise in the Younkers store.
The decor at Oak Park Mall is typical of malls (or, as we like to call them, sMalls) of this size and features barebones accoutrements and minimal decor, especially compared to larger centers in bigger cities. The color pack is outdated, the floor is a sterile white tile, and the drop ceilings make the corridor feel more like office space rather than a shopping center, but who do they need to impress?
The nearest competition for Oak Park Mall is in Albert Lea, whose Northbridge Mall is only slightly more functional - for more serious shopping excursions Austin residents probably go to Rochester or the Twin Cities.
We last visited Oak Park Mall in June 2009 and took the pictures featured here. Feel free to share your own stories and thoughts in the comments section.