Monroe Mall fills flagship store locations with new tenants

The company that owns the Mall of Monroe will soon achieve a long-standing goal: the largest spaces in the mall on North Monroe Street will be occupied again.

For the first time in more than a decade, flagship stores that were vacant will become homes for new businesses.

It’s a significant achievement, said Joe Bell, director of corporate communications at Cafaro, the company that owns the mall. He attributes this milestone to the work of Cafaro’s rental agents. The new tenants are representative of a wide range of businesses and reflect the mixed-use community center’s new vision for the property, Bell added.

“The process of attracting new anchor tenants has always been difficult – it’s not unusual for negotiations to take years,” Bell said. “Fortunately, our leasing managers have developed excellent relationships within the retail industry; they are also very resourceful in envisioning new uses for space that might be popular in the community.

“We are building a mixed-use business community that reflects the economic diversity of the local Monroe/Frenchtown economy.”

Cubesmart, a Florida-based real estate company, has acquired more than 78,000 square feet of space in what was once a Sears store.

The company will convert the space into a facility with temperature-controlled storage units. The company is investing $4 million in its new space, with an expected opening later this year.

Several of the new businesses in the Monroe Mall will open in the coming months, including new small businesses in April.

Ragnarok Supply Company and Ragnarok Motorworks will move into Pat Catan’s old craft store. Companies will provide outdoor supplies and opportunities to customize vehicles for specialized off-road use.

Local entrepreneur Jacob James has taken over the 51,100 square foot space. James also operates his other business, Leviathan, from the mall. It specializes in the manufacture of accessories for film, television and stage productions.

Next month, Domka Outdoors will move into the 56,800 square foot space formerly occupied by Carson’s. Owners David Domka and Erin Aubrecht are moving their business from the former Horizon Outlet Center in Monroe Charter Township to the new space.

The company specializes in equipment and clothing for outdoor activities such as fishing and archery. The company will set up an archery range on its premises.

The largest space – the former Target space of approximately 97,000 square feet – was purchased by Quality Auto Parts, a Detroit-based auto parts distribution company.

Bell said a particular development was possible through Target’s sale of the space. Although attached to the mall, the national retailer owned the building, meaning Cafaro could not rent the space. The company recently sold the plot.

“Apart from jointly operating our adjacent properties pursuant to an agreement, we have no influence over the former Target plot,” Bell added.

Cafaro spearheaded a campaign to revitalize the property. Company officials have long said they see potential in retaining a center that provides businesses not traditionally found in a mall.

The former Target department store has stood vacant since its closure several years ago.  A Detroit auto parts company will move into the space.

“It’s really a multi-faceted approach,” Bell said. “The best way to describe it is to think about the existing needs in the community, identify entrepreneurs who can meet those needs, and show them how they will be successful at the mall.”

Like large multi-retail spaces across the country, the Monroe Mall has begun to see a steady exodus of stores in recent years.

Following a cyberattack that compromised sensitive financial data, Target closed several stores nationwide in 2015. The Monroe location, which was one of the mall’s most popular attractions, was selected.

In the years that followed, smaller stores and larger flagship stores followed suit, including locations such as FYE; American Eagle; Aeropostale; Books-A-Million; stoppage of play; DEBS; at Claire; President Tuxedo and others.

High-profile releases such as Carson and Pat Catan have left large spaces vacant and several stretches of storefronts in the mall unoccupied.

Changing consumer trends have wreaked havoc on retailers, and it’s become increasingly common for large retail spaces to sit vacant for extended periods, Bell said.

The high-profile bankruptcies of former traditional mall tenants such as Sears, JCPenney and Elder-Beerman have had an impact. It also shows how difficult it is to find businesses that need such spaces, Bell added.

The addition of new anchor tenants will help increase traffic to the mall, he said.

“With the struggles of brick-and-mortar department stores and the rise of discounters and online shopping, surviving brick-and-mortar department stores are focusing on large, populated metropolitan areas,” Bell said. “We identify successful local businesses that want to place their operations in a larger, professionally managed environment that is not readily available in the Monroe market.”

Pat Catan's former craft store will also receive a new tenant as the Monroe Mall continues to implement its redevelopment strategy.

The ongoing pandemic has also had an impact. Like most malls, the Mall of Monroe was closed for months due to statewide regulations and mandates as the state managed its coronavirus response.

Businesses deemed non-essential have been closed and unable to operate. And after being able to reopen after months of closure, a labor shortage persisted.

“The problem was not the disease itself, but the draconian shutdowns and mandates from politicians,” Bell said. “In retrospect, did the closure of all these businesses do anything to prevent the virus from spreading? Of course not.

“Retailers are struggling to find the staff they need. The labor shortage was created by a combination of factors.

Some heritage businesses have retained their space. Phoenix Theaters operates multiple screens and its giant Encore screen at the mall. Businesses such as Spencer’s, Planet Fitness, Shoe Service, and Bath and Body Works also remain in the mall.

A large number of new businesses have also moved in. The Monroe City Church opened earlier this year and hosts several hundred worshipers each week in the former Carson’s Home Store.

Flashback Antiques, and Gifts and Custom Designs by Amu and Ani, which opened during the pandemic, recently upgraded to larger spaces. The color, which has long been in the mall, has extended to two storefronts.

The Monroe Community Players have designed a theater space for the productions and are headquartered in the mall. Ulekstore’s Pinball Arcade and Pillar Performance are also recent tenants.

Other companies are on the way, Bell said.

Katalina’s Kitchen will open soon, marking the return of a dining option to the vacant food court. The last remaining restaurant, Mrs. Fields, closed earlier this year.

Wonderland Comics will also open this year, taking the space once occupied by Flashback before moving to a new space.

Bell said Cafaro plans to continue to attract new business, relying heavily on the versatility of its spaces.

The mall has room to accommodate more retail, entertainment, service and office space, he said, adding that the property also has 68 vacant acres that can also be developed for additional uses.

Tim Matune, senior vice president of asset development at Cafaro, has worked in the industry for 38 years. He said the Monroe County market is stable.

“The redevelopment of the mall is a recognition of the need to adapt to changing circumstances,” Matune said. “We will again be a gathering place for the (community), but with different offerings.”

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