Mall celebrates 50 years of success amid changing retail market

Columbia Center continues to welcome new tenants, hopes to fill vacancies around perimeter of property

Vintage advertisements once touted the Columbia Center mall as the “Manhattan of the Northwest,” and likened it to being like “Tahiti all year long,” where it was a balmy 72 degrees indoors, allowing shoppers to escape the wind inside air-conditioned stores.

Now marking its 50th anniversary, today’s generation has grown up with malls and isn’t likely to recall a time when an enclosed shopping experience was a novel concept.

“It’s like running a small, indoor city,” said Barbara Johnson, who has managed the mall for more than 25 years. Year-round, the mall employs about 3,500 people, with the number swelling to about 4,500 during the holiday shopping season.

The Kennewick mall opened in fall 1969 with a $20 million investment, offering the first air-conditioned, regional shopping center in all of eastern Washington and Oregon.

Columbia Center boasted 55 stores at the time, with anchor tenants JCPenney and The Bon Marché, now known as Macy’s.

Original tenants also include Zales, Weisfield Jewelers and Orange Julius.

Up to $25 million in sales were expected in the first year the mall opened, likely equivalent to about $175 million today.

The current number of mall tenants in 2019 varies between 125 and 130, due to the number of spaces needed by retailers.

Johnson said the mall is consistently over 90 percent occupied.

“It’s a testament to our market. We don’t have three malls that are sitting within 10 miles of each other with the same inventory and the same stores. People who are here usually do very well here compared to other locations, like Seattle and Spokane. They’re usually in the top percentages of their stores,” she said.

The mall’s success has been buoyed by the recent debut of its newest major retailer, Dick’s Sporting Goods, which Johnson called a “big win” for the community. She joked that it’s also bringing men back to the mall, since shoppers typically are women ages 16 to 50.

Open since late September, Dick’s occupies a 45,000-square-foot space once home to a movie theater. Johnson admitted it’s a bit of a loss no longer having a theater attached to the mall, but said the theater operator had not been taking the necessary steps to remain relevant and competitive in today’s movie marketplace.

Expansion has been part of the mall’s history, as the original footprint was half of the mall’s current size, now covering nearly a million square feet in the heart of Kennewick’s retail district. The growth came in 1988 at a time the mall had undergone new ownership and the economy was tough.

“Hanford was going through a downturn and they said, ‘We’re going to invest in the mall,’ ” Johnson said. “People were like, ‘What? The market is tanking! What do they know that we don’t know?’ And sure enough, the market took off and it went from there. And you look at all the development that’s happened since then.”

The mall was the first landmark on Columbia Center Boulevard, encouraging stores, restaurants and hotels to build up around it.

The most recent major expansion to the mall came in 2006-07, under current Simon Property Group ownership, with storefronts for “lifestyle tenants” on the east side of the property, including LOFT, Chico’s and Twigs Bistro and Martini Bar.

Johnson isn’t deterred by the closure of a number of large, national retailers in and around the mall, including Shopko, OfficeMax, Sports Authority, Payless Shoe Source, Toys R Us and Sears.

“There hasn’t been a lot of available real estate and now that there is, it’s a great thing because new retailers are going to get the chance to come into the market,” she said.

Mall property includes some vacancies adjacent to its main building that once held P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Famous Dave’s and Toys R Us. Only Famous Dave’s has a confirmed future tenant—an Indian restaurant from Walla Walla.

Johnson said she can’t speak about the other two properties because she doesn’t control the lease or the property, but said from last she’s heard, owners are “very close to finalizing a deal” for the P.F. Chang’s building at 8101 W. Gage Blvd.

Johnson can confirm Trader Joe’s is not going into the buildings, despite consumers’ desire. “It’s not for lack of trying. They’ll be here eventually, but we’re not on their radar screen yet,” she said.

Additionally, the mall is working to find tenants for the former Sears store. Johnson expects it could be filled with two or three new retailers, versus one single business occupying the entire area.

“We’re trying to figure out the best use. The benefit of being fully-leased all the time, we hardly have that opportunity to kind of reflect on what is the best use of the space and what can we bring in to improve the customer experience,” Johnson said.

A highly-anticipated new retailer remains Forever 21, which announced earlier this year that it would open a store at Columbia Center. Since then, the national fast fashion brand fell on hard times, filing for bankruptcy protection and announcing plans to close more than 175 stores by the end of the year, including the store at Yakima’s Valley Mall. This has left Forever 21’s Kennewick store in question, as it had been expected to fill three vacant spaces at the mall.

“It’s probably still an option, but we haven’t had formal word from them,” Johnson said. “I think they’re still evaluating. Our people aren’t waiting to hear. We’ve got a lot of interest from other retailers. We just need something formalized from them.”

The mall has lost other chains to national closures, including Gymboree, Crazy Eight, Talbot’s, Coldwater Creek and Charming Charlie. Motherhood Maternity recently announced bankruptcy and likely will close by year’s end.

Johnson promised the last vacant storefront near Barnes & Noble “will be another really big, exciting tenant that we are looking forward to announcing soon.”

A new, locally-owned and operated clothing store opened in the mall in September. Free Culture touts high fashion and local artists. Two other locally-based tenants are expected to open before the end of the year, including Monarca Ice Cream, currently in Pasco, and Get In Where You Fit In, which has a store in Kennewick.

In an era of online shopping, Johnson estimates millions of visitors walk through the doors of the mall each year based on traffic counters once installed at the mall’s entrances. She would like people to remember the importance of supporting the shops and restaurants in town when it’s tempting to shop from a phone.

“These mall stores support police, fire, school districts, where the online retailers do not pay to the local taxing authority,” she said. “The brick-and-mortar stores are still relevant in that they’re paying a lot of taxes to the community to keep the property taxes down via the sales tax. I know a lot of people don’t think about how much these retailers pay in property tax and sales tax to keep the schools and the cities going.”

Kennewick Mayor Don Britain called the mall a “retail linchpin” of the area and said in a written statement that it is a “mainstay of our continued economic development success.” He also pointed to the sales tax generated by the mall and the jobs it provides the community.

While the mall no longer hosts car, antique and boat shows like it once did, Johnson said the mall works to incubate small, local retailers in hopes that shoppers respond and the business finds success that translates into long-term leases.

Nostalgic tenants from 1969, like Hazel’s Candies, Carl’s clothing and Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour no longer serve customers at Columbia Center, but they’ve made way for retailers customers requested like Old Navy and Victoria’s Secret & PINK.

Shoppers can expect seasonal favorites to return with the start of the holiday shopping season, including See’s Candies, Hickory Farms and Go! Games and Calendar Club.

“We are always striving to keep up with what the customer wants,” Johnson said.

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