Could This Idea Save The Lawton Central Mall?
There have been no less than 867 endless debates and conversations about how to save the Lawton Central Mall since the city shocked the taxpayers by buying the dead property for an insane price.
Were they looking at an opportunity unlikely to succeed through rose-colored glasses? Was it a rouse to funnel kickbacks to our local politicians? When you have hundreds of millions in debt, what's another $14+million right?
The conversations I've listened to over the last two years have been interesting to say the least, and it appears the privacy laws are just too tight to find actual names and members of real estate investment groups... well, yet...
Regardless of the possible shenanigans and rampant rumors, the city has pinned the success of this property investment on a program called FISTA - Fires Innovation Science & Technology Accelerator - which as best as we normies can tell is a classic tech research and development hub space... which would probably have a much better reputation to the locals if the idea weren't sprung on the people in secret during a time of pandemic and economic downturn, but politicians try to look past current conditions to see a vision of how things "could" be one day.
While the plan was to initially scrap the Sears and Dillards anchor spaces for FISTA, the contracted requirements haven't grown to those levels yet and the mall continues to suffer a slow, painful death... and if the JCPenney rumor to close and move once their lease ends turns out to be true, it might be the final nail in the coffin for our mall... but what if there was an opportunity to save this outlet in the meantime?
The Central Mall has had a repugnant reputation of being vicious and stingy against tenants over the years... High rents, daily cash takes, little-to-no improvement... literally biting the hands that feed, but maybe there's a chance to grow the mall residency after all with a little foresight from the new municipal owners.
If the incubator/accelerator idea is good for military options, why wouldn't it also be beneficial for small local business startups? Cameron University offers low-rent space to various startups, but the earmarked space is pretty limited from what I've been told. The Central Mall has well over 200,000 square feet of available space that is making zero dollars each day right now... but what if Lawton's next local business owner just needed an ideal condition to take that leap and open their shop to start contributing to the local economy?
Affordable rent and a very gentle, easily canceled lease policy might be the only thing standing in the way of someone realizing their dreams of becoming the next local small business owner... but there's the catch. Some local business owners I've talked to about this aren't a fan. Well, a majority of them aren't fans because they feel they had to do it the hard way back when the economy was good and the dollar was worth something.
Seeing as the mall is now a public space, funded and subsidized by Lawton taxpayers, there's really no risk. We own it, it's fully funded and not relying on rent money to keep the lights on at the moment. I mean, the goal is to eventually see the mall become self-sufficient and perhaps profitable one day, but that's a long-term goal our politicians aren't counting on for a long time.
Another good idea that seems to be suggested quite often is building out some of the expansive space to be used as a safe and secure, publically funded homeless shelter... Take Dillards or Sears, remodel it into hundreds of single bedrooms, and have a keypad system in place to allow our less fortunate to come and go securely. It's not the worst idea in the world.
Another suggestion was to lean into the fact malls are retro and redesign the mall to appeal to the generations of people that actually enjoyed going to malls. You may know it as the vaporware aesthetic, but if you were a Gen-Xer or elder Millennial and walked into a retro-neon 1980s themed mall, it might strike a chord with people, making the mall a cool place to be again.
Of course, that would require the city to reign in all the stupid rules they have about loitering and unattended minors hanging around the mall... Banning the people that spent more money on the services than they did on the goods was probably the worst idea the mall ever had. All of us latch-key kids spent our free time roaming the malls with our friends and it was the heyday of these places.
I can't help but think the small business incubator idea has to be the best way to see real results from our forced investment. After all, the way to get people to the mall to save the mall is to give people a reason to visit the mall... More businesses = more people. People = money. Money = maybe they'll finally start rebuilding our dang roads.