Empire Mall and Empire East; Sioux Falls, South Dakota

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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.

empire-east-03In 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.

empire-mall-13New 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.

empire-mall-17Since 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!

21 Responses to “Empire Mall and Empire East; Sioux Falls, South Dakota”

  1. Wow, I have yet another missing mall for my list! I never knew about Empire East.

    Anyway, I’m told there used to be a Scheel’s at Empire Mall. Where was it?

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    Rod Reply:

    @Bobby P.,

    Scheel’s used to be next to JCP where Old Navy is now.

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    Connie Reply:

    @Bobby P. The Scheel’s at the Empire was a fairly small store just west of JCPenneys. It was on the north side of the hallway. It did not have all the bells and whistles that Scheel’s stores have now; a pretty straightforward clothing & equipment store back then.

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  2. I worked at the Target in the Empire East from 2001-2005 when I was a student at Augustana College. If you look at the front of the Empire East there is a triangular, window-filled are that juts out between the Target entrance and the mall entrance. This was the front of an old store. When I first arrived in Sioux Falls this space was a temporary hot tub store. It also became the temporary Halloween store, the temporary Christmas store, etc. Target swallowed up this space in 2003 when they completed their massive overhaul of their store, along with a chunk of the former mall hallway. This area is now a part of the Target stockroom and employee lounge. This remodel added about 30,000 square feet to the store.

    Kohl’s embarked on a major remodel at the same time Target did, swallowing the former movie theater and sealing off their mall entrance.

    Bed Bath and Beyond arrived sometime after I left Sioux Falls in 2005, after the essential de-malling of the Empire East. They never had a mall entrance. The space they occupy used to be Ultimate Electronics.

    I remember some old Sioux Falls people calling Kohl’s Richman Gordman, so I think that the Kohl’s space was a Richman Gordman location after it was a Schriver’s.

    @Bobby P. – There was a Scheel’s at the Empire. It was located just outside the JCPenney store in the space where Old Navy is now. This store closed, along with the Scheel’s at 41st and Minnesota (which became a Dollar Tree and Staples) when they opened the two story Scheels at the Western Mall sometime in 2003 or 2004.

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  3. There was also talk at one time of moving the Applebee’s in the Empire East to a freestanding building in the parking lot and JoAnn Fabrics was going to expand into the former Applebee’s, essentially finishing off the interior of the Empire East. I can see that never happened.

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  4. Re: Empire East, what they should do is bump BB&B and Target out into the remaining wing/Jo-Ann Space, shift Applebee’s entrance to the front, move JoAnn to a superstore. Voila, no more mall.

    Also, two questions, looking from the directory:

    1. f.y.e. and New York & Company are HUGE. Were these stores something else previously?

    2. There’s a Culver’s in the food court. I’ve never seen that before.

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  5. Looks like a nice mall, but it can use more skylights, especially in the halls with the metal paneling in the ceiling.

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  6. I agree, they could use more skylights and higher ceilings.

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  7. The place is really dank and dark, but when the next closest mall is 90 miles away in Sioux City, Iowa the need to update these things is minimal at best.

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  8. My email is Nkbush@wccta.net if you guys wanna chat…

    Anyways I still think it’s bull that South Dakota (and Wyoming for that matter) got Macy’s (by default) before Iowa did. I think Macy’s would be a great addition to Jordan Creek Town Center as a fourth anchor. That’s just my opinion though. The closest I’ve been to Sioux Falls is Sioux City that I can remember (my ‘rents took me to SD when I was like three)…

    Oh and Jordan Creek totally knocks out Village Pointe in all aspects…IMHO there should be a Starbucks near…which there is not…there are Scooter’s….a LOCAL coffee chain based in Omaha…there’s one in Des Moines but Starbucks is WAY better…

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    Greg Reply:

    @Nathan Bush,

    Had Famous-Barr not pulled out of Iowa, there would be a Macy’s at Jordan Creek. (The Younkers location at Jordan Creek was originally slated to be a Famous-Barr).

    Macy’s has probably made a sound business move by avoiding Des Moines. Younkers still has a a lot of hometown loyalty behind it, even though the company is now based out of Pennsylvania. Von Maur also has a ton of Iowa loyalty. With Dillard’s in the mix as well, there is not a whole ton of room in the market for Macy’s.

    Macy’s does not provide what it used to in terms of upscale focus and prestige. After I moved away from the Midwest, I found myself missing the level of service and market responsiveness Younkers and Von Maur offer.

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  9. I was looking at the interactive map…and noticed a Dag’s sandwhich shop. There used to be one in Wood Bridge or Monmouth mall in New Jersey…like in 82-83.

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  10. Very interesting article! Thanks for taking the time to add a South Dakota mall to your archive! Rushmore Mall in Rapid City was probably your second choice, and it too has an interesting story to be told. As of late it’s been struggling due to the new open air shopping center, Rushmore Crossing. I would love to help out with an article concerning the Rushmore Mall. I’ve grown up visiting the mall. E-mail me if you’re interested.

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  11. There actually was a food court prior to the current Harvest Court addition, but it was quite small. It was located in the round kiosk area in the center of the mall near the main mall entrance where Cinnabon is currently, and I might be wrong, but I think there were more food joints radiating from the round area up to the front of the mall. I didn’t go to the Empire that often back in those days, but I believe there was a Sbarro next to where Ann Taylor Loft is now. I distinctly remember Burger King was located where Great American Cookies is now and also a potato place and Dairy Queen were in the mix somewhere with a shallow seating area surrounding the restaurants. Can anyone else remember the other restaurant tenants? Maybe McDonalds? For decades, there was an Osco drug where the Gap is now located as well. The food court addition is very on par with the beautiful food courts at West Acres in Fargo, ND and Crossroads Center in Saint Cloud, MN.

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    Brad Reply:

    @Curious George, I remember an Arby’s, Hardee’s (aka Carl’s Jr.), and Subway in the former food court. Also, the arcade Alladdin’s Castle was close to there (probably where Ann Taylor Loft is now).

    I’m too young to remember New Town Mall, but I can remember as a kid being able to use the ‘mall’ entrance to Target, but I can’t remember what stores were still there (this would have been in the mid-80′s)

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  12. Also, it should be very interesting to see the effect of the addition of both Dawley Farm Village and Galleria at Rivers Bend on Sioux Falls’ retail landscape. The location of the new lifestyle centers is not as conducive to attracting the out of town shoppers as the Empire/Empire East complex is, but I’m still willing to bet the Empire will be scheduling a renovation soon.

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  13. As for the old food court in the center kiosk area near the now Cinnabon:

    Yes, there was a Sbarro near “Loft” and a BK were Great American Cookies is. The potato company was called “One Potato, Two” (or some variation of that), and there was also a pizza joint called Pizza & Pasta (my favorite at the time!). I think the Pizza & Pasta moved the the ‘Harvest’ food court when it first opened but didn’t survive vary long.

    Another Empire favorite from my childhood was “Aladdin’s Castle” which was directly inside the front doors (north side) and in the first retail spot to the right (just down the hall from the old food court). I’ve lived in SF my whole life (25 years) and have many great memories at the mall. Sad to see the “Empire 6″ theatres disappear. Some still don’t believe me that it was even there!

    Another AWESOME store that was in the Empire mall was Qzars Laser Tag. It was located in what is now the FYE store (thus the large space) and it was amazing! There was an arcade as well as a very large indoor laser tag arena. The store was probably there for less than a year open in 1998-99. That was another disappointing loss for the mall.

    One last favorite (is it annoying yet?): The Cookie Jar. It was located across the hall from FYE near the Military recruiting offices. They had great big cookies and if it was your birthday you could go in to get a free one. Yum.

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  14. how big is this mall? And for the Toys r us, it appears to have been built in the 1990s, when did it open and why didnt it open in the 1980s?

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  15. Omg I totally forgot about Qzars Laser Tag- I always either went to magic castle or gigglebees (both gone now). I will back you up on the movie theater! I went to several shows there- seems like a lifetime ago.

    Btw, the mall inside and out needs updates. The only updates that happen are by the tenants who pay a ton anyway. That thing is a cash cow- but I guess someone has to pay for Macerich’s high priced projects in California.

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  16. b ut whats with Toys R us not opening there in Souix Falls till 1994, why didn’t it open there 5 yrs earlier?

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  17. was there a Disney store there?

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