Independence Center – filling the spaces

By Mike Genet
The Examiner

Macy’s has closed up and exited the Independence Center, just as Sears did in 2019, leaving the mall with large empty spaces on each end.

Two anchor stores remain in Dillard’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, but the restaurant space near the main entrance has been empty for three years now, retail nationwide has been on a downward trend for years, and Independence has the nearly last remaining enclosed mall in western Missouri.

Macy's at Independence Center closed earlier this year, but the mall's owners say once they get an ownership control of that space they can put it to new uses

Still, the relatively new owners of Independence Center say he worst is behind them and that the mall’s location still has potential and can make their investment worthwhile.

Dan Thompson, vice president of leasing for IGP Business Group, said that in terms of separate spaces, the mall is 87 percent occupied.  

“We do have spaces available, but I think that's pretty strong,” said Thompson, who did leasing at the mall for previous owner Simon Property Group in the 1990s. “We leased four new spaces in the last month.”

“This area, it’s a strong retail market. The retail is a strong node.”

Still, IPG did not expect Macy’s decision to shutter its Independence Center location amid a round of nationwide closures.

“Their volume was not that bad,” Thompson said. “When we talked to the Macy’s people, they said they had enough in the area. COVID also could’ve caused it.” 

Like Sears, Macy’s owns its building space, which complicates IGP’s ability to fill it. The mall owns the land it sits on, though, and IGP wants to eventually control the building. 

“They have a rental obligation through 2034,” Thompson said, “so they’re still responsible. We own the land, we are in negotiations (with Macy’s), and we think the end result will be positive.”

Matt Ilbak, CEO of IGP Business Group, said he believes the company can fill the Macy’s space based on IPG’s experience with the mall in Salina, Kansas.

“Once we have control of this space – in that particular mall we had three empty boxes, and we filled them all in one year,” Ilbak said. 

One space there became a Dunham’s sporting goods. Another became a District Eat & Play, a combination casual restaurant and entertainment venue.

“We know how to lease these spaces; Salina is proof of that,” Ilbak said. “We have plans to have the right tenant, but first we have to control the box.”

Ilbak said eventually they will have a similar conversation about the Sears space. Sears had been negotiating with another company about its mall space, Ilbak said, before the pandemic hit and shuttered that discussion. Suffice to say, the vacated spaces won’t be filled by stores similar to the predecessors.

“I don’t see the upside for Macy’s type of tenants,” he said. 

Rather, it could be something other than shopping. The mall already replaced the carousel next to the food court with a District Jungle play area that opened last year.

“We’ve built a family-oriented destination, so families can enjoy and not just shop,” Ilbak said. “Our California and Florida malls had family-friendly uses.”

“It’s not a traditional way of malls, but a mixed-use area. We’re not going after a Macy’s; we’re going after up-to-date businesses.”

“Shoppertainment,” Thompson called it.

“The kids are really excited about District Jungle. Obviously our timing wasn’t good with COVID, but now it’s becoming popular.”

Similarly, Thompson said, the pandemic stalled discussions to fill the former Applebee’s restaurant space at the main entrance, empty for three years now, but he says that will change before 2021 is over.

“We were very close to getting a deal signed, and then a nasty thing happened,” Thompson said, referring to the pandemic. “That deal is coming back around.”

The food court has also held steady while the mall’s been open during the pandemic, owners believe.

“Our restaurants actually do pretty well, and as traffic increases and people have more a sense of security, they’ll pick up,” Thompson.

Even with the mall’s departures and other recent nearby departures along 39th Street such as JC Penney and Barnes & Noble, IGP leaders say they’re confident enough about Independence Center’s future that they have bought four pad sites adjacent to the parking lot along 39th – all east of Chick-Fil-A – where they plan standalone businesses.

“It’s an up-and-coming location; there is a lot of opportunity,” Ilbak said.

Added Thompson: “Our commitment and faith in what we can do with this property hasn’t changed.”