Local Business: What’s next for Bloomington-Normal shopping malls? | Watch now

Eastland Mall in east Bloomington sits as a 732,651-square-foot monument to the evolving retail shopping model.

BLOOMINGTON — Online shopping. Bankruptcies and portfolio downsizing. Looting. An infectious disease pandemic.

Bloomington-Normal’s brick-and-mortar retail industry has weathered a range of shifts in consumer behavior and economic pressures in the last decade.

The once-vibrant mall culture has tarnished into darkened shopfronts and cracked parking lots. Store liquidation and “space for lease” signs are more common than grand opening banners. Smartphone apps and next-day shipping have replaced the seasonal catalog.


Rochelle Cantero, of Bloomington, and son Ross Leuty, 9, shop at Target in the Shoppes at College Hills on Wednesday.


Eastland Mall — the 732,651-square-foot east Bloomington monument to that ongoing paradigm shift — reported a 24% vacancy rate at the end of 2020.

But during a recent visit, The Pantagraph counted 40 tenants and 36 vacancies, totaling a vacancy rate of 48%.

“The mall culture has definitely been on the decline for a long time,” Rachelle Cantero, 44, of Bloomington, said after a trip this week to the east Normal Target. “It’s sad, for me, to see Eastland Mall in the state that it’s in.”

The slow bleed at Eastland certainly reflects a national trend at indoor malls.


Ardis Stewart of Normal shops at Hobby Lobby on Wednesday. She said the outdoor layout at the Shoppes at College Hills fits her style of shopping.


Real estate industry data for June, compiled by property consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, shows that vacancy rates at U.S. indoor malls could top 10% by the end of 2021. In 2010, that figure was at 5%.

“Pandemic aside, malls have been transforming over the last several years to add new uses, and that trend will continue moving forward,” said Stacey Keating, senior director of public relations and corporate communications for CBL Properties, Eastland’s parent company based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

But the national data also shows a positive trend: Outdoor shopping centers and “power centers,” or open-air shopping plazas anchored by big-box retailers and smaller tenants, are performing well, with vacancy rates of 7%.

That’s the case in Bloomington-Normal, too, according to a Pantagraph analysis which found that more than a dozen shopping centers, plazas, strip malls and outdoor retail variations carry a combined average vacancy rate of about 25%.

Local property managers said that’s indicative of an overall shift in the retail industry, wherein smaller shopping centers lining commercial corridors — built when there was no space at Eastland — are now the dominant model.

“Businesses are becoming increasingly savvy about site selection,” said Jack Fahler, senior property manager of M&J Wilkow, which owns Normal’s outdoor mall, The Shoppes at College Hills. “Many are seeking open-air shopping centers as the ideal location of the business, whether it’s an entirely new location or a relocation of their existing store.”
Eastland Mall’s fall

When Eastland Mall opened in 1966, the massive indoor shopping center served as a regional retail destination that would also generate jobs and tax revenue.

It symbolized a model in the retail industry, wherein smaller beauty, fashion and food businesses shared customers with juggernaut department stores under the same roof.


Sears at Eastland Mall, Bloomington, will close in November.


In 2002, the mall reported a vacancy rate of 2%, bolstered by five anchor stores — Sears, J.C. Penney, Bergner’s, Famous-Barr and Kohl’s.

But within a few years, as the Twin Cities and its economy swelled, so too did the competition for local consumers. What’s more, larger national economic forces weighed on corporate and chain retailers with a local presence.

The first domino fell in 2017, when Macy’s, which took over Famous-Barr, became the first anchor to close at the mall. That move was part of a wave of 100 Macy’s store closings that year across the United States.


In this Dec. 4, 2018, file photo, black plastic sheets cover the doors of the former Macy’s at Eastland Mall in Bloomington.


Six months later, J.C. Penney announced the Bloomington store would shutter alongside 137 others.

In April 2018, Bergner’s announced it would leave the mall, after assets of its bankrupt parent company, Bon-Ton Stores, were sold to liquidators. Four months later, Sears gave notice that its doors would permanently close by the end of the year.

That series of pullouts left Kohl’s as the mall’s main anchor, alongside a collection of mid-sized retailers like Old Navy and ULTA Beauty, and fitness chain Planet Fitness.

In the three years since the carveout, a number of other staple Eastland stores — Payless Shoes, Charlotte Russe, Christopher & Banks and H&M — all announced closures because their individual parent companies liquidized after declaring bankruptcy.

The mall’s food court, added in a 1980s expansion, now hosts just three restaurants: Gloria Jean’s Coffees, Kobe Japanese Steak & Seafood and Pretzelmaker. Great Steak, a national restaurant chain specializing in cheesesteak sandwiches, was evicted in July for unpaid rent.

Eastland Mall

Eastland Mall in Bloomington remains open and is the last of the big indoor malls in the area.


Ultimately, in the fall of 2020, amid the opening acts of the coronavirus pandemic, Eastland’s parent company, CBL Properties, itself filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Eastland Mall’s future

Filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission show that CBL continues to report a loss on impairment for Eastland. For the first quarter of 2021, that figure was at $13,243, according to SEC filings.

Keating said both sales and customer traffic at the mall are rebounding and returning to pre-pandemic levels.

Eastland mall

A contractor enters Eastland Mall in Bloomington to do maintenance work in December.

DAVID PROEBER, Pantagraph file photo

“I think if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s how much people value the experience and socialization that brick-and-mortar shopping centers offer,” Keating said. “Online shopping has certainly grown, and the pandemic fueled some of that, but once our malls were allowed to reopen, we saw traffic start to rebound quickly.”

When asked about vacancies at the mall, Keating said management has seen an uptick in interest in available properties, mostly from local and regional business owners.

A Bloomington-based women’s boutique, Sugar Baby Muahh, is opening Oct. 25.

But Keating said the “traditional mall” model of a complex “anchored by several department stores and consisting of a primarily retail mix inside are gone.”

What’s emerging, she said, “is a more dynamic, vibrant destination that offers customers not just retail, but dining, entertainment, fitness, and other uses.”

Empire Crossing

Dick’s Sporting Goods is one of the major anchor stores at Empire Crossing, 1609 E. Empire St. in Bloomington.


Open-air shopping the new norm

That revised model is especially popular across Bloomington-Normal’s major commercial corridors, which feature a collection of strip malls, power centers and shopping plazas.

The six properties owned and leased by Tentac Enterprises — Brookridge Center, Eastland Commons, Eastland Square, Market Square and Prospect Center in Bloomington, and University Center in Normal — all have limited vacancies.

And larger centers like Empire Crossing, which hosts retailers like Dick’s Sporting Goods, PetSmart and HomeGoods, has a 29% vacancy rate, with one anchor vacancy and four smaller openings. The nearby former Shell gas station is also up for grabs.

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