So yesterday, we discussed why the plan to revitalize the old Charlestowne Mall, renamed, The Quad St. Charles, won’t work. And I want to thank capable DH reporter Jim Fuller for hosting a generally cogent conversation on the topic on his facebook page.
As usual, I found myself in the vast minority as most of contestants, including former St. Charles Mayor Sue Klinkhamer, thought this new retail endeavor was the best thing since sliced bread. But in all the debate, nobody, not even Sue, addressed my main contention.
The development team can consist of the best minds in the country and their redevelopment blueprint can be a stroke of sheer genius, but it doesn’t matter because the basic premise is completely flawed. So to repeat myself, and staying withing that venerable high school debate team format; Resolved, American shopping malls are dying and will soon become extinct.
1. Malls were conceived and born as a result of President Eisenhower’s Interstate system push. This new level of mobility led directly to the one-stop shopping concept. But gas was 26 cents a gallon in the 50’s and even if you adjust it for inflation, it comes to $1.75. Right now we’re paying four bucks a pop and the real driving season hasn’t even started.
2. The whole point of obtaining a driver’s license was to avail yourself of the freedom to meet your friends at the mall. But now I’ve heard it from dozens of parents, “My kid doesn’t care if he learns to drive or not.” Beyond school, teenagers rarely get together anymore. My youngest son regularly “meets” with his friends on Skype, playing Minecraft, and on various video game networks. And once high schoolers aren’t conditioned to go to the mall, they won’t do it as adults either.
3. To reiterate! The big box store concept is on its way out and malls cannot survive without the anchor stores that draw the smaller retailers.
4. Steadily vanishing malls are also a result of the vanishing American middle class. The malls that are making it – and still being built – are those that cater to the 1 percent. The irony there is, those uber-wealthy folks who’ve tilted the financial playing field in their favor are sealing their own business doom. What happens when there’s no one left to buy their products?
5. Malls are generally sterile places with poor customer service and it’s always hard to get into or out of them. When was the last time you heard someone say, “Wow, I really enjoyed my trip to the Mall!” On the rare occasion I visit the Geneva Commons (mostly to Fresh Market or the bank), my goal is to get the hell in and get the hell out.
6. The Internet is the ultimate in one stop shopping. And the lack of sales tax advantage argument is specious because instant gratification still reigns supreme in this culture. The truth is, I can sit in my comfortable home office naked (I bet you can’t get that picture out of your head), find anything I could possibly want at a reasonable price at my fingertips, avoid Randall Road traffic, not spend a dime on gas, dispense with surly salespeople, and enjoy a few shots of tequila in the process. How do you compete with that?
Again, the singular exception are those malls that cater to the 1 percent will succeed. But that’s because it’s kind of like those boxes at the opera that don’t really face the stage. You don’t buy them to see the proceedings, you buy them to be seen.
In Other People’s Money, Danny Devito’s character issues one the best silver screen soliloquys ever. My favorite line is, “And do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow, but sure.”
That’s why, despite any $20 million city incentive and the best laid mall plans of mice and men, The Kruasz Companies will eventually lose most of the $70 million they’re investing in The Quad St. Charles. Having wasted all that time and energy, St. Charles will be the proud owner of yet another large, empty vacant lot that they won’t be able to do anything with.
If it can happen once…
I firmly believe that a great part of the stiff resistance to my assertion is that nobody likes a prophet because they’re so antithetical to our love of wishful thinking. The truth is, I’d love to see this project succeed, but no amount of wishful thinking is enough to overcome a major cultural shift and it’s certainly not enough here.