Questions linger as Moorhead Center Mall tenants ponder their futures
One thing is certain at the Moorhead Center Mall: the days of the once-popular retail destination are numbered. With a massive new development in the works, the mall's remaining tenants are facing an uneasy future.
MOORHEAD — It’s lunchtime on a recent Monday and Anne Osa is seated at a booth inside her restaurant wondering what’s next.
It’s not the day’s lunch and dinner service she’s mulling, nor is it the open dishwasher position her family-run restaurant is trying to fill (today she will be washing the dishes herself). Rather, Osa is contemplating the future of the Moorhead Center Mall, where Thai Orchid makes its home along Center Avenue in the city’s downtown.
The mall’s future and her family’s future in the United States are closely intertwined. Running Thai Orchid is a family affair, with Osa and her sister working alongside their parents to dish up family recipes which date back to her great-grandmother.
Keeping the restaurant’s doors open isn’t just a business decision, it’s what keeps her parents’ work visas active. It is the reason the family even acquired the restaurant back in 2014, so her whole family could stay in the Fargo-Moorhead area.
When a group of developers unveiled plans to tear down the Moorhead Center Mall in an effort to revitalize the area, it was personal for Osa. “It’s so serious, it’s so scary for me because if I don’t have the restaurant, all of my family has to go back because of the visa of my mom and dad,” she told The Forum.
Thai Orchid is only one of the businesses which stands to be displaced by the proposed redevelopment. While ideas have long swirled regarding the mall’s fate, the countdown all but began when Moorhead residents voted in favor of a 0.5% sales tax increase to finance the construction of a library and community center on the mall site.
While businesses inside the mall acknowledge the writing is on the wall, questions still hang in the air as they seek to plot their future.
Osa marks her family’s eight-plus years running Thai Orchid by the headwinds they’ve faced.
First it was road construction, then a broken pipe, a fire, flooding, the COVID-19 pandemic, and road construction once again. This year, Thai Orchid came within a week of ending their lunch service and a month of closing for good after a particularly dry patch. After sharing a photo of their empty dining room via Facebook, customers rose to the occasion and Thai Orchid once again pulled through.
As if surviving all of that wasn’t enough, Osa is now wondering whether or not she needs to hunt for a new location. Previously, the Osas leased Thai Orchid from a close friend. That friend eventually sold ownership to Roers, the Fargo-based real estate firm whose CEO Jim Roers told the Clay County Commission has acquired 94% to 96% (all but six units) of the mall’s property.
Osa reports that Thai Orchid is still under a lease for the next year. After that, however, she doesn’t know what the future holds.
Down the hallway and around the corner, the same is true for Mary Fabre Berndt, franchisee of Merle Norman Cosmetics . Fabre Bernt has been a denizen of the mall for 35 years, splitting time on each end, meaning she has had a front-row seat to the changes at the mall since its early days.
Fabre Berndt acquired the store back when it was a “failed” location, she said. For decades, she has maintained a steady stream of clients. “I’m very fortunate I have a great following and we continue to gain new customers,” she remarked. “That’s all we can really ask for in retail.”
The Merle Norman franchisee added that she processes “a ton” of mail orders for customers, all in an effort to keep up with the times and stay afloat.
Like Osa, Fabre Bernt is also facing an unknown future, though she expected that new ownership meant a new vision for the mall. “I think most people feel like I do. We want to stay put, we just have to see,” she said. "It’s the unknown, we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Timing is everything
One thing is certain at this point: the mall’s days are numbered. It’s the rest of the puzzle that remains murky at the moment.
Fabre Berndt said she has “no idea” what the timeline for demolition and construction is. She is not alone, either.
Barb Schramm, owner of The Three Bees , opened her store inside the mall in April of 2021. The business traces its roots to 2014, when she launched the European clothing shop as Barb’s Basement Boutique and operated out of her home.
Schramm brought her small business to a vendor show at the mall. After success there, she opted to move into the mall, where she says her customer base has increased “tenfold.”
When she moved into the mall, she was unaware that the Roers-led development group was attempting to buy up properties. Regardless, Schramm is a lifelong Moorhead resident — outside of a 22-year stint in Germany as an opera singer — and enjoys being a mall tenant. “I love being here in the mall,” she said. “I love Moorhead.”
The unanswered question hanging over every remaining business in the mall is when, Schramm said. It is an especially important consideration because she believes many small businesses will struggle to find places to set up shop that are as affordable as the mall. “The thing that I worry about is that we do not know exactly when we have to be out. That’s up in the air,” she said. “It’s very difficult for us to know as far as finding other places that we can also afford for the small businesses. That’s true of anyone in the mall.”
When Jim Roers first unveiled plans for the mall’s future in August, he reported that demolition of the east and west ends of the mall could begin as soon as next fall. Businesses in the center of the mall could potentially stay in place for two or three years, he said, though that was subject to change. The Forum attempted to reach Roers for this story, however a voicemail left Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 15, did not receive a response in time for publication.
Addressing the Clay County Commission Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, Roers said that it could take years for the site’s final vision to be realized. “By the time other people begin to see the vision and begin to engage in reconstruction of the downtown, it’s going to take us at least five more years,” he said.
Roers said his company is the “master developer” of the site and that the firm has reached out to other prominent developers in the area, receiving encouraging responses. At the time, he added he could better chart the next five years of development after the Nov. 8 election.
In a conclusive show of support for the master plan, over 64% of Moorhead voters supported the sales tax ballot measure. The measure will increase Moorhead’s city sales tax by 0.5% beginning April 1, 2023. The tax revenue will be used to finance the new library and community center and stay in place for 22 years.
On election night, Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson said the additional cost to residents would be $25 per year. Carlson was a backer of the sales tax increase, noting in August that its passage would “jump-start” the entire mall project.
Now that the sales tax increase has been supported, Schramm knows she will have to move out of the mall, though she still does not know when. “It’s very important for us merchants to have a workable timeline,” she said. “Picking up and moving your shop is not an easy feat.”
‘People think it’s over’
Deedee Sonstelie, owner of F-M Antiques and More , said she was displeased with the election results, but as a resident of Fargo admitted she had no say in the matter.
Sonstelie would have preferred to see the existing mall renovated and modernized rather than torn down. She also fears the sales tax increase will fuel a perception among shoppers that it is cheaper to shop in Fargo. “It is what it is,” she said when asked to share her feelings on the election result. “I’m maybe not happy about it, but I don’t live here in Moorhead, so I couldn’t vote anyway. We’ll just have to deal with it.”
F-M Antiques and More has been in business in the mall for six years, with Sonstelie owning the business for five of those years. She also owns the Comfort and Joy store located just a short walk down the hallway. Her father, Jack Heinrichs, assists with the operations of both stores. “This is a happy spot for a lot of people,” she remarked while seated behind the counter inside the antiques store. “It’s a safe place for your brain to relax and people love that.”
Business has been slower in recent years, which Sonstelie attributed to a public perception that the mall is torn down or already closed. Empty storefronts and the boarded-up Everest Tikka House, which closed at the end of September , don’t help that image, she said. “It’s been slower because people think it’s over, but it isn’t over. We’re still here,” she commented. “We’re trying to keep paddling upstream.”
For her part, Schramm has worked to bring new vendors and events into the mall. A church bazaar and vendor show took place over a recent weekend, while Schramm is also hosting a winter fashion show at 1 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3.
Schramm has tried to encourage new merchants to move into the mall on a more permanent basis, but none of her efforts have been fruitful. “I would love to see anything (come into the mall) because you have to work with what is here now,” she said.
Posters are affixed to the windows of vacant storefronts offering contact information for a Roers realtor. Alice Schiefert, manager of Hers Styling Salon, said there have not been any takers. “Absolutely not,” she replied when asked if new businesses have moved in. “Why would they?”
Schiefert believes the beginning of the mall’s demise began in August of 2018, when the Herberger’s anchor store closed and was not replaced. “I’m disappointed because I was hoping they’d revamp the whole mall and make it fresh and new and get businesses in here, but I realize that brick-and-mortar stores aren’t such a thing anymore,” Schiefert said. “Once Herberger’s left, I mean, that was kind of the beginning of the end. We’re still mourning Herberger’s.”
Once the plans for the mall’s future were revealed publicly in August, Sonstelie suspected it was the beginning of the end. The reveal did not catch her off guard, however.
Like most other businesses, Sonstelie and Heinrichs are left wondering when demolition will affect them. Despite the hazy timeline, Heinrichs said working with Roers has been positive and he doesn’t harbor ill-will towards the real estate developers. “The Roers people have been super to us,” he said. “A lot of the problems with the malls started long before Roers.”
‘I hope for the best’
Jim Roers emphasized to the Clay County Commission that the development is not seeking to destroy any existing businesses. “We don’t want to drive anybody out of business," Roers said. "We want to assist them in moving to the next level, however they have to be willing to do that because of the overall master plan that we want to implement.”
Schiefert expects Hers Styling Salon to close for good once property developers tell them it’s time to go. It means an earlier-than-anticipated retirement for her, but she anticipates other stylists will try to find work elsewhere.
Currently, Schiefert believes the salon will be torn down towards the end of the demolition process, meaning she’s hoping for a few more years in business. She is thankful that Roers has not increased their rent and allowed them to stay put in the meantime, though she too wonders exactly how much time is left. “We’re kind of at the mercy of when they decide to tear us down, we’re done,” she said.
Fabre Berndt said she will stay in the mall for as long as possible. She is hopeful she may be able to operate her store in the new development once it’s completed as well. “I hope for the best for downtown Moorhead. I want to see it thrive. I hope retail stays,” she said. “I will stay in Moorhead as long as I can. I have no plans to go anywhere else.”
Fabre Berndt said she is not ready to give up her ability to create her own schedule, good employees or source of income just yet. “I love what I do, so I plan to stay put in Moorhead. I guess I have to ride the storm and see what happens,” she said.
Schramm also counts herself among those rooting for Moorhead’s success, even if it comes at the expense of her business. “That happens in life,” she lamented. “You have to find your own niche and everything. For me, it would be difficult. I’m not ready to retire, I don’t plan on retiring, but it is a real difficulty in finding someplace else that is affordable.”
A lifelong resident, she has seen plenty of changes over the decades and plans to remain in Moorhead and preserve through the city’s latest alteration. “I am (going to stay in Moorhead) because I’m from Moorhead,” she said. “I grew up here, I’ve been through all the changes in Moorhead.”
Sonstelie and Heinrichs noted that they will be looking for a new location in the near future, but they do not know where it will be. Sonstelie said she will play it by ear. “It is what it is and we’ve got to deal with it somehow,” she said.
Vic's Bar and Grill owner Jerry Komroski and Puffe's Fine Jewelry owner Scott Puffe both declined to comment on record regarding their future plans. Both are awaiting more information from developers.
Osa said Thai Orchid would like to remain in Moorhead if the restaurant could find a new location at the right price. If not, she said the restaurant will stick around in the area as a thank you to the customers who have supported her family. “100%, we will stay in this area, Moorhead, Fargo or West Fargo.” she said, “It depends on the deal. Of course I love the people in Moorhead because they help me a lot.”
The Osas know they need a long-term solution for their business and for their family’s future in the United States. Those concerns weigh on Anne, but for now there are dishes that need to be washed.
The development means that businesses currently occupying the Moorhead Center Mall face an uncertain future. Despite this, they retain guarded optimism, just like many other Moorhead residents who want to see better results than past revitalization efforts. Host Thomas Evanella and digital producer Kris Kerzman talk over Thomas' latest story