In the 1980s, Idaho joined the mall craze sweeping America. Idaho Falls, Chubbuck, Twin Falls and Boise all got new malls within a decade.
John Price, a Salt Lake City developer, led the charge. After developing successful malls in his home state, Price’s company, Price Development Co., moved north into Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, among other states.
Price Development Company opened Pine Ridge Mall in Chubbuck in 1981, and then Grand Teton Mall followed in 1984. The Price developers saw potential for retail development in a region that lacked major malls, which were exploding at the time across the country.
“There was a need,” said Bob Mitchell, a partner with development company Thornton Oliver Keller, who managed Pine Ridge Mall in its early days. “Department stores wanted to expand into these markets.”
‘You get Penneys, and we’ll come along’
One-hundred-sixty acres near Hitt Road and 17th Street, now the heart of Idaho Falls’ retail corridor, was annexed to the city in 1978. Local developers Jack Jensen and Dick Skidmore bought the land the year before, hoping to build a regional shopping center.
Jensen and Skidmore tapped Price Development Co., which already had success with Chubbuck’s Pine Ridge Mall, to lead a mall project. The Price company already had two shopping centers in Idaho Falls: Yellowstone Mall on North Yellowstone Highway and Teton Plaza on First Street and Woodruff Avenue.
Located in the city’s developing beltline system, arterial roads that would move traffic around the city while avoiding downtown, the area had potential for retail growth.
“(Price) built it with the idea that the city would grow up around it, and it certainly did,” Mitchell said.
It wasn’t only attractive for new businesses but also existing businesses, as well.
Several downtown businesses relocated to the new mall, after developers secured major retailers, including JC Penney, which would become the mall’s primary anchor.
Once JC Penney was secured, the retailer became bait to attract other stores.
“If you get JC Penney to commit, you’ve got a mall,” Skidmore told the Post Register in 1984. When he contacted businesses about locating in the new mall, “They said, ‘You get Penneys and we’ll come along.’”
Grand Teton Mall would secure ZCMI and The Bon Marche (now Macy’s) as additional anchors, as well as 80 tenant stores. Pine Ridge Mall hosted the same three anchors in the early days.
Thirty-five years later, the two malls look very different from each other.
Today, the Grand Teton Mall hosts several strong national anchors, including JC Penney, Dillards, Macy’s and Ross Dress for Less. And dozens of national chain stores in Idaho Falls-Ammon’s retail corridor anchor the mall’s anchors.
Pine Ridge Mall has been able to retain just one national retailer: JC Penney.
“Malls are really driven by the department stores,” said Richie Webb, a developer with decades of experience in mall management, who started his career with Price Development Co.
Grand Teton Mall was able to retain its department stores or attract new ones.
Mitchell said Grand Teton Mall benefited from greater Idaho Falls’ population growth over the last 30 years.
“Retail follows residential,” Mitchell said. “Obviously there’s been tremendous residential growth in the Upper Snake River Valley.”
Idaho Falls’ location makes it accessible to customers in Wyoming and Montana, as well as East Idaho. And its citizens have a higher disposable income.
According to census estimates, the median household income in Idaho Falls is $49,098. In Pocatello, it’s $42,979.
“I think there’s a material difference,” Webb said. “That certainly drives sales and traffic and viability for a lot of anchors — and just national tenants in general.”
Many malls in the U.S. have been forced to adapt to an evolving retail industry that’s moving online. Brick-and-mortar retailers are dwindling.
According to Coresight Research, a retail data research firm, U.S. retail store closures this year have already exceeded the total number recorded in 2018. U.S. retailers have announced 7,222 store closures and 2,796 store openings so far this year. That compares to 5,864 closures and 3,239 openings in all of 2018.
Coresight Research estimates U.S. store closures could reach 12,000 by the end of 2019.
Suburban malls have been especially vulnerable to the decline in retail. The boom of malls in the 1970s and ’80s has given way to a new demand from mall customers.
“Everybody saw (the mall) as the place to be for your one-stop shopping experience,” Richie Webb said. “When you got into the 2000s, the number of malls that were being built slowed dramatically.”
While some malls, such as Grand Teton, have remained stable because a wide population can support them, others, such as Pine Ridge, have to adapt.
In the 21st century, shoppers who are going to give up the convenience of online shopping expect an experience. They don’t just go to the mall to buy something; they can get whatever they could possibly dream of on Amazon.com — and probably at a lower cost.
“Online shopping has made a pretty big dent in the whole shopping experience,” Webb said. “But there’s still that social (aspect) of going to a place: interacting with people, seeing, feeling, touching. If you can create that experience, people will come.”
Webb, who is president of Hemming Properties, a company that operates a successful shopping and residential center in Rexburg, said suburban malls have to adapt to an experience-based approach, such as adding an entertainment business, or completely change how their space is used.
Vacant Kmart locations in Idaho Falls, for example, were repurposed as storage facilities by U-Haul. Mitchell, with Thornton Oliver Keller, was involved in that deal.
“I think that’s a really good example of what can happen over time with retail properties that outlive their normal retail life,” he said.
Pine Ridge Mall, in the midst of department store casualty after casualty, is doing both: adding experienced-based tenants and repurposing former retail space.
Pine Ridge added a gym, a virtual reality arcade, an escape room and a church. One former department store will become a school.
“In this evolving environment of e-commerce, businesses need also to evolve, and if you don’t evolve, you will die,” Pine Ridge Mall Manager Drake Taylor told the Idaho State Journal in February. “The direction the mall is going is providing more experience-based opportunities.”