I almost can't believe I'm writing this, but I think major retailers should give one more shot at saving the Grand Avenue mall.
I'm surprising even myself, because it wasn't all that long ago that I blogged that the mall should just throw in the towel and become something else.
Yet, because we moved our office Downtown a few months ago, I find myself visiting the mall several times each week. I'm going there for lunch, mostly because the covered skywalks make walking around in the winter much more tolerable. And guess what?
There are lots of people at the Grand Avenue mall.
Not tons, like I remember it in the '80s, and they're not necessarily shopping at the pre-paid wireless stores or nail salons. They're eating lunch or meeting at the Stone Creek Coffee or working out at the YMCA or scouring T.J. Maxx for bargains.
Even if suburbanites have long since given up the mall for dead, focusing on points north, south and west to do their shopping (feel free to infer racial undertones, if you want) working people in Downtown still come here during business hours.
The thing is, if Grand Avenue mall wants to rebound, it's going to have to do more than play business incubator and offer free or discounted rent to pop-up shops. That's great – I'd rather see a startup web design fill a space for cheap than leave it empty – that's how we started out at our very first office.
But the mall needs stores. Real stores.
There are actually a few. After paying close attention to the few major chains in the mall, I did notice that people were in fact visiting Walgreen's and Office Max and Radio Shack. They weren't, however, visiting Boston Store. It looked sad and empty.
So that's probably the main argument against the "if build it, they will come" plan. But Boston Store only remains at the mall because of the corporate offices above it, or perhaps from some civic duty. You can tell the store isn't really giving it its all, and why should they?
I assert that the new owners of Grand Avenue must really, really incentivize some stores – that once lived here – to come back. Don't just give them free rent. Work with the City to make it worth their while. I bet even Boston Store could do OK if it wasn't the only store on the empty west side of the mall.
The thing about the "if you build it they will come" plan is that it doesn't work in reverse. The people who are already coming to Grand Avenue mall don't have anywhere else to visit when they're done with lunch, so you can't really say if more people came to the mall there would be more stores.
Someone needs to take a chance. I don't expect The Gap or H&M or Crate & Barrel to arrive out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. We don't need them to do Milwaukee a favor.
But Milwaukee knows that it's not putting its best foot forward when tourists and convention goers visit the Grand Avenue. Spending some money to make sure they come back is a worthy investment in the city's future.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.