During '80s, downtown transitioned from cafes, retailers to niche stores, coffee shops
The 1980s brought the demise of the traditional downtown atmosphere for Mitchell’s Main Street.
Early in the decade, it bustled with businesses like Woolworth’s, JCPenney, cafes, clothing stores and drug stores with what people called “lunch counters.”
Today’s Main Street has evolved into more of a niche market with home décor stores, upscale resale clothing, boutiques, coffee shops and hair salons. Though the factors contributing to the transition can be traced back decades, some say the major movement took place during the ’80s.
At one point before the 1980s, six blocks of Mitchell’s Main Street was home to 22 cafés, said Darwin Buus, former owner of The Townhouse Café. During his time at The Townhouse -- 1984 to 1994 -- there were at least two other cafés on the 100 block of Main Street.
But as major retailers such as JCPenney and Woolworth’s decided to either move off Main Street or close, downtown lost its hold as the city’s center of commerce.
Buus said the root of the decimation of Main Street’s once-lively business district was the 1960s construction of Interstate 90, far south of downtown.
“The town was booming all the way down Main Street on both sides,” Buus said of the early ’80s. “My thought for years was once they break across the interstate, it’s going to grow to the south. And that’s what it’s doing.”
Actually, the land south of Interstate 90 remained largely undeveloped until 1999, when Cabela’s announced its plans to build a store in Mitchell. A wave of development followed, and by 2012 the newly constructed businesses south of I-90 were generating $166 million in taxable sales -- 45 percent of the city’s retail trade, effectively making the area the center of commerce in the city.
That title once belonged to downtown.
JCPenney was located at the corner of Third Avenue and Main Street until it moved in January 1960 to 412 N. Main St., which is now Second Impression Palace antique store. It was one of many clothing stores on Main Street, including Buche’s Clothing and Small’s Clothing Store. Today, stores like Geyerman’s Clothing and Michael’s Toggery remain. JCPenney moved from downtown Mitchell to a mall on northern Main Street in 1985, citing the need for more store space and parking.
Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bryan Hisel said many retailers in the 1980s cited these same reasons for leaving downtowns. Parking, in particular, in Mitchell was a major reason, he said, as there was mostly only on-street parking.
The mall phenomenon began in the 1970s and ’80s, and Mitchell was not immune. Hisel said mall-type shopping was not a new concept -- savvy retailers who owned several buildings and strategically placed businesses in those buildings in downtowns across the nation. Those businesses drew customers downtown for recreational shopping -- browsing, buying and stopping for lunch -- like many do at shopping malls, Hisel said.
“As silly as parking sounds, it would have weighed into the retailers’ moves,” he said.
He said malls gave towns a contemporary and up-to-date aura. For example, the Palace Mall on the north end of Mitchell -- where JCPenney is located -- once also housed Herberger’s, Shopko, Stage and Randall Grocery.
Woolworth’s was a popular variety store on Mitchell’s Main Street through the ’80s, but the store eventually closed in the early ’90s when the company closed several hundred stores nationwide.
Buus said Woolworth’s included a lunch counter, like many of the chain stores and drug stores in the 1980s. A lunch counter is a small restaurant, much like a diner, where the patron sits on a stool on one side of the counter, and the server or person preparing the food serves from the other side of the counter. Drug stores, like Saterlie’s and Scallon’s, also offered lunch counters, Buus said.
Jeff Logan, owner of Luxury 5 Cinemas in Mitchell, grew up on Main Street. He watched as many businesses owned by doctors and lawyers move from upper levels of buildings to their own structures. He watched soda shops and clothing stores close.
Professionals -- doctors, optometrists, lawyers -- enjoyed the convenience of having offices downtown, but the cost of upkeep became too much, Logan said, particularly for elevators and handicap accessibility.
Many buildings downtown had elevators that required an operator -- someone to stand in the elevator and manually stop it on each floor.
“It suddenly became tens of thousands (of dollars) to upgrade or even do maintenance to be approved for insurance and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” Logan said.
He said tax-wise, it made sense for many professionals to build new buildings elsewhere in town.
He particularly watched as Main Street went from a place to get general items like groceries to a niche market for specialty items.
“It’s a different kind of shopping,” he said. “A lot of changes came with the big stores offering so much and it kind of took the general merchandise from retailers.”
He said shoppers who visit downtown Mitchell now are not searching for bread, milk, eggs and their prescriptions. Instead, they are searching for crafting supplies, one-of-a-kind home décor items, a spa treatment and a good deal on unique clothing.
People who visit downtown are also able to get entertainment, which is where Logan’s movie theater plays a role. Logan once ran both Roxy Theatre and State Theatre, both stationed in Mitchell. Several reasons led to the closure of the State in 1986, chief among them its limitation to a single-screen theater, being expensive to heat and cool, and being too expensive to expand. So, he sold the building to Mitchell Area Community Theatre, which was housed there until fire destroyed the building in 2004.
Although many movie theaters started building new structures outside of downtowns in the 1980s, Logan knew it was important to keep movies at the center of town.
“We have a lot of people in the summer who like to walk to the show -- just a nice evening stroll to the theater,” he said. “You couldn’t do that if we were on the edge of town.”
By keeping the movie theater in downtown Mitchell, Logan said parents feel safe dropping their children for a show or sending them on their bicycles.
“Those are some advantages of being downtown,” he said.
Parking was also a big issue in Logan’s decision to close the State.
“The State Theatre didn’t have close parking, not in line-of-sight,” he said.
He added the reason Luxury 5 Theatres is still downtown is because parking is available across the street.
The 1980s also saw a lot of people leaving downtown living and office space behind, Logan said. He said many building owners didn’t spend the money to fix up or maintain the second- and third-floor spaces.
“They didn’t want to maintain elevators, either,” he said.
He said many apartments and offices were small and the money that would have gone into expanding, adding modern appliances and updating wiring would have been too high.
Lyle Swenson, president of the Mitchell Area Historical Society, said only a few of the buildings downtown reached the 100-year mark by the 1980s. Despite that, many of the buildings’ roofs began leaking and windows were deteriorating.
“They just got to the age where it was cheaper to build new buildings,” Swenson said, referencing businesses moving from downtown offices.
He said many people wanted to live in houses in the 1980s as well, rather than apartments.
Parking again came into play for those living and maintaining businesses downtown, Logan said. With more people owning cars in the 1980s than in previous decades, good parking was hard to come by.
An odd and unique structure from the 1980s on Main Street was a huge waterslide located where the Moonlight Bar is currently. The Raging Rapids water slide opened in the summer of 1983, but didn’t even stay open two years, closing in the spring of 1985. The Daily Republic recorded its ribbon-cutting in August 1983 with then-mayor Paul Tobin and other officials standing in the water at the bottom of one of the slides.
Buus said it was a playground and big draw during the summer tourist season. It was originally an empty lot after Rozum’s car dealership moved, he said. A Daily Republic article stated the slide cost about $200,000 to build.
Although major retailers no longer grace Mitchell’s Main Street, its niche stores still complement the World’s Only Corn Palace, arguably the street’s most unique structure of all.
To further enhance Mitchell’s downtown, Mitchell Main Street & Beyond unveiled a plan in July to enhance Main Street’s streetscape. The $5.8 million project has yet to be funded, but the plan would encompass 32 acres of downtown, creating curb extensions with trees and native landscaping from First Avenue to Sixth Avenue.
Other proposed additions would include benches, sitting walls, bike racks, information kiosks and public art displays. The plan also includes the replacement of stop lights at Second, Third, Fourth and Sixth avenues with stop signs.
Changes are geared toward allowing a more pedestrian-friendly area with wider crossings and a downtown plaza on the south side of First Avenue. The plaza would be located where a parking lot is now at Railroad and Main and would include an outdoor amphitheater and natural playground, water features, public art displays and seating areas. It could be used for special outdoor events or just day-to-day use by residents and tourists.
The entire design of the project is meant to enhance tourism and complement the Corn Palace.