The Sault’s Station Mall once billed itself as ‘The Centre of It All.’ For a couple of generations, it arguably was. First and foremost it was a shopping hub, but also a place to meet for lunch or catch a movie. Some days, well, it was all of those things.
The joke that made the rounds in recent years was the mall was still the centre, alright, but only because it had lost its anchor stores at both ends. In the wake of the online shopping phenomenon and reduced customer traffic, all that remained was a somewhat lonesome middle.
Thursday’s announcement by new owners Straton-Hunter of plans to open an “eatertainment” complex on the second floor of the former Sears store at the east end, with a sports-accented restaurant at the west end – with more plans still in the works – was the talk of the town yesterday.
Marcel Giordano, owner of Hollywood Beauty Salon, and mall tenant for 43 years, was still digesting and assessing the development plans Thursday afternoon. He pointed out more details are forthcoming, so final judgments have to wait. While he had just learned of the initial plans hours earlier, Giordano’s first impressions were favourable.
“It’s great news,” said Giordano. “Any new addition to the mall, I think, is exciting news for everybody. A lot of people have been waiting for things to happen and that’s the one thing I constantly hear ‘When is something going to happen?’ A lot of people ask me because I’ve been here so long. Now that it’s published that something is going to happen, I think that’s the first step. It’s a positive and that’s what we’re looking for, is more positives.”
Giordano has seen businesses come and go. He wonders why some former Station Mall stores have left and have not returned.
“Why are we losing those stores to Sudbury? I know there are lot of people that will travel to Sudbury to go to to those stores. A lot of those same stores were (here) previously, and they left but they haven’t come back. So what is holding them back from coming to Sault Ste. Marie? Hopefully, the new ownership group can bring some of those stores back.”
When Sears closed its mall doors in 2017, it was a jolt to the mall and the community. Ramona Dodd, Manager of the mall’s Tip Top Tailors, worked at Sears for 23 years and is thrilled the once undisputed anchor space of the mall is about to come alive with new business.
“I’m very excited that we’re coming to a nice turnaround,” said Dodd. “I’ve seen the work going on outside and I’m really excited that the new owners of the mall are stepping up, bringing in new stores and foot traffic into our business area.”
She recalled just how brisk business was in the mall’s peak years. “It was phenomenal,” she said. “If customers had coupons, there were lineups to get in on Saturday mornings. Sears just had everything, there was something for everyone.” Dodd believes if the right steps are taken, Station Mall can recapture much of its glory of the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Oh definitely. They can really recoup a lot of business if they get more interesting stores, it can be a destination. If they’re putting in a restaurant and an activity centre, that will draw more people.”
Thursday’s news was sweet for Steven Ladouceur, manager of the Laura Secord store. “It has been very hush-hush but I heard it last night on the news, and I am very excited about it,” said Ladouceur. “I’m looking forward to having more business in the mall, to bring new people in and old customers back. I think it’s going to be a good move.”
Laura Secord, along with kitty-corner neighbour People’s Jewellers, are the only two original retail outlets from when the Station Mall opened in 1973. He said it was tough to see some stores go the past few years.
“It was difficult at times, but I try to keep an open mind. It’s looked a lot better in the last year since the new owners took over. The new management has been doing a great job of it.” Straton-Hunter are pouring $60 million into Station Mall, and the new owners have stated they are aiming for a good mix of businesses. The depth of Straton-Hunter’s financial commitment was not lost on Steve Richardson, co-owner of The Shoe Fits!.
“It is welcome news for the shopping complex,” said Richardson. “They are not afraid to spend money and they’re spending it in the right places…for the things we don’t have here. It’s not going to be redundant. Hopefully they do go outside the box and help the neighbouring community.
Richardson said his store has experienced seven straight years of growth. He takes exception to negative comments suggesting Station Mall isn’t a desirable place to shop.
There’s a lot of negative views about this place right now and it’s not (deserved),” said Richardson. “Any store that’s here has been very profitable the whole time. The stores that have pulled out, during the pandemic and what not, they’re stores that were national chains that closed everywhere so it’s not like our mall is terrible. Our community is not supporting it.
The fact that they (new owners) have some new blood in there, is good.” The new businesses excite Karen Brydges, manager of Fairweather, but she seemed just as excited about what she called Straton-Hunter’s fresh approach.
“Exciting. Very exciting. I have always loved working in the mall,” said Brydges, who has managed the clothing store the past 10 years. “I just find that the new owners and the new manager are really taking in interest in everybody who works here. They’re really happy to be moving forward with all of us.”
For Bree Vachon, assistant manager at Galaxy Cinemas, Straton-Hunter’s plans excite on multiple levels.
“As someone who lives in the Sault it’s been kind of upsetting to see the mall slowly dwindling,” said Vachon. “Now that we’re getting bigger and better things coming. I’m excited not only to go to them but to be working nearby. Hopefully our business will benefit from the popularity the new businesses will bring.”
Andrea Coulter has managed Hilltribe in the mall’s west end for the past 17 years. Like many others she likes what she’s heard so far and is anxious to hear more. “I think it’s going to be very beneficial for our mall,” said Coulter. “There’s been lot of vacancies since Covid. I think we need more of an attraction, at this downtown plaza, she added.
“I’d love to know what they plan to do with the former Walmart. We need two decent acres, to get people from one end to the other.”
What would Coulter add to the mix, if she were given the choice?
“I’d be nice to bring in more entertainment for our younger generation. Other than that, retail is retail. Food and entertainment would be fantastic.”
If Station Mall ever was once the ‘Centre Of It All’, it clearly wants to return, to be The Place, to be at that forefront. After Thursday’s news broke, its shop owners and managers are believing it can get there. Straton-Hunter is banking on it.