A new use for the mall, for better and worse

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Members of the Yankton School Board heard some good news Monday night when they were told that River City Gymnastics and Cheer, which has been using facilities at Yankton High School (YHS), would be moving to a new training location: the former JC Penney space in the Yankton Mall.

It’s good news because it will relieve some of the congestion at the high school’s limited facilities. It would also allow the YHS gymnastics team to train at the new location and, according to the agreement approved Monday, hold this winter’s three home meets there.

But, in a way, that’s also the bad news.

It tells us that nothing is (or was) on the radar in terms of finding a new retail tenant for the former JC Penney site.

That’s frustrating.

Mind you, this takes nothing away from the value of River City Gymnastics and Cheer getting a spacious new facility to stretch out and expand. The added room promotes both safety for the participants and allows for more kids to get involved.

However, we still can’t help but see the site as 30,000 square feet of commercial space sitting vacant – space that this community could really use to address its need to expand its retail offerings and draw more customers and more revenue to town.

Perhaps that thinking no longer fits the current reality. These are challenging times for such things. Given the fallout from COVID-19 and the recent downward trend of brick-and-mortar businesses as primary retail drivers, drawing businesses to town – or promoting such development locally – are tough sells, especially when such businesses are more apt to be contracting than expanding. For instance, Sears (which left this town for good last year) announced another round of store closures a few weeks ago, including its last store in Illinois, the state where the business was founded. These are tough times, indeed.

In Yankton, the pandemic basically shut down the mall in general. While a couple of businesses still operate there, the facility is mostly a deserted shell. And since malls are struggling all across the country these days, perhaps it’s foolish to even hope for a turnaround of fortunes there, at least at this point.

While turning the old JC Penney’s slot into a gymnastics/dance facility takes what was, in theory, a potentially attractive piece of retail property off the boards – the River City group reportedly has an option to buy the space – there is still other unused retail space available, such as the former Dunham’s location, where some hope to attract future prospects resides.

But that has been going slowly, if at all. The drastic changes in the retail economy, not to mention the problematic management of the Yankton Mall in general, has made that space virtually a graveyard.

Again, our disappointment in the news about the old JC Penney site has absolutely nothing to do with River City Gymnastics and Cheer or YHS gymnastics; it does have everything to do with this community’s prospects for retail expansion. While the city’s revenues have been chugging along, the lack of significant input from the mall site remains frustrating.

As for River City Gymnastics and Cheer’s move to the Penney’s site, it’s better to have something there than to have nothing there, which is what has haunted that spot for the past couple years. It’s a big step forward for them. Meanwhile, we can still hope for a change in retail direction that’s been too long in coming but may be too much to ask.