We like to root for the retail underdog. Don’t get us wrong, we love all things retail, but we appreciate older, outmoded, and visibly dated centers and hold them with special regards. Perhaps it’s our appreciation of retail history, a throwback to our youths, our dislike for retail homogenization, or even something entirely different altogether. Either way, as a result of this appreciation, our next two posts take us to a very typical midwestern town in southern Minnesota.
Strategically located at the intersection of two major interstates, 90 and 35, Albert Lea is home to about 18,000 people. This may seem small, Albert Lea’s retail arm extends into a larger trade area encompassing many smaller communities in south central Minnesota and north central Iowa, which is less than 10 miles south of Albert Lea. With that said, however, many people in Albert Lea and the surrounding areas also travel to areas with a wider variety of retail offerings such as the Twin Cities, about 90 miles away, or to closer shopping areas in Austin, Rochester, and Mason City, Iowa.
As a result of the relatively large distances to other cities, Albert Lea has above average retail offerings for a city its size, including two enclosed malls on opposing sides of town, Skyline Mall and Northbridge Mall. Yes, there are two enclosed malls for 18,000 people. Skyline Mall opened in 1966 on the west side of Albert Lea along Main St. near the intersection with Highways 13 and 69. During Skyline Mall’s heyday, it was anchored by JCPenney on the east side, Montgomery Ward on the west, and an IGA grocery store anchored the north end of the mall.
During the 1980s, however, Skyline Mall fell out of favor, possibly as a combined result of increasing competition from distant cities, its age, and changing trends in shopping in general. In 1983, the first blow came as Montgomery Ward closed. A couple years later, the IGA also closed, leaving two anchors vacant at Skyline Mall. As if that weren’t enough, in 1987 an entirely new mall, Northbridge Mall, was constructed across town. The new mall was modern, larger, and had more features shoppers were beginning to demand such as a food court. In addition, Northbridge is adjacent to an exit from Interstate 90, whereas Skyline Mall is not. Northbridge is also closer to where much of the growth is occurring in Albert Lea, on the east and north edges of town.
After Northbridge opened, Skyline continued on and attempted to reposition itself as an ancillary to Northbridge, featuring many local or discount retailers to complement Northbridge’s higher-end and national chain offerings. Indicative of this repositioning was the placement of one of the area’s first Wal-Marts in Skyline Mall, replacing Montgomery Ward as the west anchor. However, it was not enough to sustain the mall and many stores continued to leave. Ben Franklin, Stevenson’s clothing store, and several more stores closed in the early 1990s and finally JCPenney closed in 1993 or 1994, leaving Skyline with just one anchor.
The past decade or so has seen Skyline evolve from a retail center into a hybrid enclosed community/office/retail center. The hardware store and several other small shops are still open, but there are also a Senior Center and offices. Wal-Mart has recently left Skyline Mall to build a standalone Supercenter across town, on the east side near Interstate 35. As Skyline Mall continues to soldier on anchorless, it completes the transition from retail to community center and your guess is as good as ours what the future will bring.
We visited Skyline Mall in Albert Lea in September 2001 and took the photos featured herein. JCPenney had been replaced by Rainbow Foods, but that has since closed. Jo-Ann Fabrics and Hardware Hank are still open as of December 2006. Leave some comments and let us know what you think, and don’t forget to check out the vintage sign.