Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s largest city and a boomtown currently experiencing tremendous growth. Tucked into the southeast corner of the state, it has a population of about 154,000 people, and just over 230,000 live in the metropolitan area; however, Sioux Falls is the focus city for a wide geographic area and media market of over 1 million people living in parts of four states.
Historically, most vocations in Sioux Falls were in quarrying and agriculture-based industries, but this all changed in 1980 as corporate tax laws were relaxed. In 1981, Citibank moved its credit card center from New York to Sioux Falls and numerous other financial sector jobs followed suit, including HSBC and Wells Fargo. The corporate tax abatement is considered by many to be the impetus for rapid and sustained growth in Sioux Falls. With a growth rate between 20-25% in every decade since 1980, Sioux Falls is by far the fastest growing area in either the Great Plains or the Midwest, two regions which the area straddles.
In addition to finance, health care and retail are also important business sectors. Because Sioux Falls anchors a vast trade area, it is even more of a retail hub than other cities of comparable size in more densely populated areas of the country. And, the center of this retail hub is the Empire Mall complex, located along 41st Street just east of Interstate 29 on the south side of town.
Empire Mall opened in 1975, with 47 stores and two anchors – Younkers and JCPenney. However, Empire was not the first enclosed mall in Sioux Falls - the 350,000 square foot Western Mall - anchored by Montgomery Ward, Brill’s apparel, and Tempo supermarket – opened in 1968 just half a mile east of Empire on 41st street. Empire Mall’s original layout was a simple dumbbell of enclosed shops between the two anchors, with JCPenney flanking the eastern side and Younkers at the western end, respectively. When it opened, Empire was a little more than half the size it is today, with about 600,000 square feet of total leasable area.
An expansion to Empire Mall came inline in 1978, adding a new wing with 22 stores and a Minneapolis-based Dayton’s anchor at its south end. The new wing hinged off the midpoint of the original wing, giving the mall a ‘T’ shape, and this strong roster of anchors meant no more real competition from Western Mall down the street.
Yet, in 1980, another developer decided to plunk down a third mall in Sioux Falls, directly across Louise Avenue from Empire Mall. It was given the creative name New Town Mall, and was anchored by Target and Sioux Falls-based Shriver’s – a department store. With 280,000 square feet of space, a Mid-Continent Theatre was also on site, as well as 40 in-line store slots - though New Town never filled to capacity.
New Town Mall’s layout and design was much like that of the original Empire Mall, with a mallway stretching from Target on the north end to Shriver’s and the movie theatre on the south end. Interestingly, another Shriver’s location opened a year earlier, in 1979, at Western Mall just half a mile to the east – replacing the Brill’s apparel anchor. Unfortunately, though, Shriver’s went out of business in 1986, and the space later went to Kohls. For some really cool vintage photos and a complete store listing – including a neat interactive map – of New Town Mall in its heyday, check out GreetingsFromSiouxFalls.com.
Meanwhile, in 1988, Empire Mall embarked upon another expansion, this time adding a Sears that moved from downtown Sioux Falls as well as 27 inline stores, in an impressive new wing. The new Sears wing actually gave the mall’s layout a lot more appeal, because a total of four mallways were added to make a square south of the existing corridor: one was added to get over to the mallway in the Dayton’s wing, another to get up to the main original mallway, a diagonal from where the previous two mallways met was constructed down to Sears, and a tiny little one - just for fun – went into Younkers, giving Younkers two mall entrances. For a more illustrative version of this layout, check out this great mock-up at Mall Hall of Fame. After the Sears addition was completed, Empire Mall soared to over 1 million square feet, making it the largest mall in between Minneapolis and Denver, a fact used often by its marketing team.
The 1990s brought even more success and another significant addition to Empire Mall, as the neighboring New Town Mall was ‘annexed’ by Empire and renamed Empire East. There’s no physical connection – though wouldn’t that be cool? – between the malls, which are on opposing sides of Louise Avenue, but they are owned and marketed as a single unit rather than separate entities. The Empire East addition brought the new gross leasable area at the Empire complex to over 1.3 million square feet.
Since the merger, though, much of the interior corridors at Empire East/New Town have been sealed off permanently for store space, and the mall has been mostly big-boxed. Kohls replaced the theatres and the former Shriver’s, and Bed Bath and Beyond took most of the middle part of the mall. Target also expanded their store at some point, ate the first few stores on the north end, and shut off their mall entrance. I believe Kohls did this as well on the other side, because I visited the mall in 1995 and the mallway seemed a lot longer – or maybe I was just a lot smaller. Kohls and Bed Bath and Beyond also do not have entrances into the mall, and I think they did at some point. All that remains of the interior of Empire East today – as of 2009 – is a sad, tiny corridor leading from the former east mall entrance back to Jo Ann Fabrics, which is still a popular store and has no exterior access of its own. An Applebees has access to this small corridor as well, though it also has an exterior entrance. I was surprised anyone was even using the benches in front of Jo-Ann in the photo – it seemed like a rather forlorn place to sit.
The 2000s saw more modernization and continued success at Empire Mall, along with a couple anchor changes. In 2001, Empire Mall got its first food court, The Harvest Cafe Court, which is about as attractive and tasteful as a food court can be – no pun intended. Also in 2001, Dayton’s changed to Marshall Fields, and in 2006 Marshall Fields changed to Macy’s. The in-line store space has remained well-tenanted too, with a report during the holiday season 2009 that the mall has reached 100 percent occupancy (including seasonal stores), flying in the face of the economic recession at the end of the decade and the fact that the mall has not been significanly renovated since the 80s. In fact, Empire Mall is the number one tourist attraction in all of South Dakota - beating even Mount Rushmore.
We visited Empire and Empire east in June 2009 and took the pictures featured here. Keep a watchful eye for the metallic bars and mirrored areas of the ceiling – vestages of days gone by which have disappeared at many other malls – we guess they survive here due to almost no competition from anyone. As always, leave your comments and experiences. With South Dakota down, we have only two states remaining!