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Virginia's Thunderbird Mall adjusting to changes in industry

Rockstep Capital has been working on ways to modernize and find new tenants since purchasing Virginia's Thunderbird Mall in 2014. (Andrew Krueger / akrueger@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
Construction was underway at the Thunderbird Mall in Virginia last month, as the mall's owners work to fill the space once occupied by Kmart. (Andrew Krueger / akrueger@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
A 4,900-square-foot outparcel building, housing a Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bagels, was nearing completion at Thunderbird Mall in Virginia last month. (Andrew Krueger / akrueger@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

Rockstep Capital, owner of Virginia's Thunderbird Mall, has been working on ways to modernize and find new tenants since purchasing the property in 2014.

Part of this modernization is a 4,900-square-foot outparcel building nearing completion that will house a Caribou Coffee and Einstein Bagels along 12th Avenue. An additional 2,400 square feet of space will be available for lease in the building when the project finishes this month.

When Kmart closed its doors in the mall in 2017, Tractor Supply Co. moved into the northern portion of the building in November. According to Rockstep's Midwest Regional Manager Jody Vest, 34,000 square feet of the former Kmart space will be demolished. A deal is in place to lease the southern part of the building, and Rockstep hopes to announce the new tenant within the next month. The remaining space — approximately 14,000 square feet — will be available for lease in the middle section of the building.

Since Rockstep purchased the mall, different tenants have arrived, left and relocated to different spaces within the property. Rockstep Chief Financial Officer Tommy Stewart said that one of the struggles with finding new tenants is the market size.

"The city is great and they're very business-friendly, but sometimes smaller markets in this atmosphere have kind of taken a step back with retailers," Stewart said.

The struggle to find new tenants is common in markets nationwide due to the domination of e-commerce sites such as Amazon. Vest said that Rockstep is trying to adjust by finding more uses for the traditionally retail-focused space.

"Rockstep is responding and adapting by evolving into a multi-use property," Vest said. "We own one of the largest real estate properties in the area and offer extremely competitive market rents, and we encourage these nontraditional uses to contact us for information."

Virginia Mayor Larry Cuffe Jr. said that it is encouraging to see economic development using the current structures within the city.

"Virginia is pretty landlocked, so being able to repurpose the older structures is the way to go," said Cuffe, who has met with Rockstep and other city officials to share ideas and input on ventures for longtime tenants. One idea under consideration is splitting the mall in order to strip all interior access, allowing all of the businesses to be directly accessible from the parking lot.

Last month, Herberger's and Younkers parent company Bon-Ton Stores Inc. said that it had filed for bankruptcy protection. Stewart said that they are still unsure if Herberger's will be closing its doors in the Thunderbird Mall due to this announcement, but said that it "still does very well" in that mall.

The transition of the Thunderbird Mall is reflective of the changes happening around the city economically. Cuffe said that Virginia currently has about eight projects underway, including the restoration of a hotel in downtown Virginia that will become a Quality Inn.

"I hope to continue to see new ventures here, both in the mall and the greater city," Cuffe said.