Walla Walla Town Center to See New Life

After nine immobile years, retail businesses will soon fill what used to be the Blue Mountain Mall.


Photo by Emma Casley

Hannah Bartman, Feature Editor

Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Mall sits lonely on the corner of Myra and Rose. Its only store, a Shopko, is surrounded by vacant buildings. Some are gutted while others are lost in states of transition, their skeletal walls crumbling and consumed by shrubs and graffiti. The mall sits on potential and harbors hopes that Walla Walla could, after a long decade, open the retail businesses that its citizens have been craving for years.

It appears that this transition is taking shape. According to president of development company Real Estate Affiliates (REA) Alan Gottlieb, the project should break ground in the fall of 2016 and stores should begin opening in April or May of 2017. Tenants have yet to sign their lease, but according to City Manager Nabiel Shawa approximately 8 businesses have signed commitment contracts to open in what will be newly named Walla Walla Town Center. Forever 21, T.J. Maxx, Ulta, Bed, Bath & Beyond, Hobby Lobby, Ross, Famous Footwear, Shopko, and other small restaurants will fill the empty spaces. More retail shops are yet to sign but the official list of tenants will be available within the upcoming months.

Photo by Emma Casley

“Walla Walla is fortunate in that the people that purchased [spaces] were described as stalwarts; they are very well established, have great reputations and they have the ability to put the shopping center back on track,” Shawa said.

The shopping center opened in 1989 and was home to four large businesses: Shopko (the only remaining business), Fred Meyer (which became Troutman’s Emporium in 1992), Sears, and J.C. Penny (which became a Gottschalks). By 2007, the mall had lost of its tenants except for Shopko.

It was around this time that a developer purchased the area, gutted Sears and Gottshalks, built the walls for three new buildings and was lining up businesses to open in the vacated spaces. Then the recession hit. The developer absconded funds from the project and went overseas, leaving what Shawa estimates was around 24 million in debt. At this time Key Bank repossessed the site and put it on the market. A Southern California based development firm, REA, purchased it in 2013 and has since been organizing plans for retail businesses to come to Walla Walla.

There has been a growing amount of anger amongst citizens due to the slow progression of this project. One Facebook page entitled ‘Save our Blue Mountain Mall’ has taken the lead for the past 5 years on posting pictures and occasional updates on the lack of development.

“Oh January 2016, here you are and The Walla Walla Blue My(sic) Mall still looks like a garbage dump! I am so tired of looking at it. To all those who said it would get cleaned up and new businesses were coming in, ha! Somebody PLEASE do something!” said page owners on Jan. 22.

Shawa knows from a citizen satisfaction survey released in 2015 that one of the top four wants of Walla Walla citizens is retail businesses. He also recognizes that more retail means more sales tax which is one of the main sources of income for the city. In 2007, Walla Walla reached its all-time high regional sales tax at 4.9 million. The recession brought this number down by approximately 1 million, but the 2015 reports show tax is back to around the amount of 2007. Additionally, Walla Walla is losing approximately 40 million in revenue due to outside retailers in places such as the Tri-Cities, a condition called leakage.

Photo by Emma Casley

“We’re at the cusp–there’s a lot of disappointment with the citizens that this has not broken ground, but believe me the city wants to see this development,” Shawa said.

The complications for beginning the project lie in attaining tenants, national retailers, to agree to open a store in a town that has little data on citizen buying attitudes. Besides Walmart, Macy’s, Joanns, Staples, and a few grocery stores, Walla Walla does not have national retailers.

“Nobody can really project accurately what sale volumes may be in Walla Walla because it’s mainly independent tenants, so it takes a while for these retailers to understand that marketplace,” Gottlieb said. “It’s educating those retailers and it takes a lot of time to get that done but we’re pretty much there at this point in time.”

These new retailers will open potentials for Walla Walla consumers–new shoes, clothes, and soaps in a short 10 minute drive–but what will its effects be upon other smaller retail businesses? In the late 1980s-1990s, when the Mall had just opened, Main Street reached its all-time low. Small businesses closed and the Mall only worsened a local economy that was on the downfall. It was at this time that City Hall and some of the business leaders started the downtown revitalization. Old architecture was restored and wineries began to repopulate the downtown area.

Photo by Emma Casley

“For every dollar we put with [the Town Center] we need to spend 2 hours and 2 dollars on Main Street because that is what all of the businesses around small towns are trying to do, they’re adding vibrancy and business to their main streets,” Shawa said.

Shawa believes that the increased tourism from the wine industry and Main Street’s charm will ward off any potential threat that the large retailers might bring, building Walla Walla’s vitality across its corners.