Is there any hope for The Shops of Grand Avenue?
Rob Wieland: Before the beginning of the 2012 holiday shopping season, it was announced that the semi-famous balancing bear from The Shops of Grand Avenue would be residing over the doors of the Milwaukee Public Market. This completed something that’s been happening for quite a few years now: The Shops of Grand Avenue have flailed for an identity for years. It may be because of absentee management. It may be because of the death of shopping malls. It may be because of Milwaukee’s deep-seeded resistance to becoming a cosmopolitan city. Grand Avenue still struggles with what it should be and only seems to be reliably good at generating local blog think pieces. The Milwaukee Public Market has quietly become a showcase for local Milwaukee businesses, a vital component of downtown, and an unlikely success story in the city amid bigger and better suburban enclaves sprawling out from the city. Since we now have a cool, funky downtown popular market, where does that leave the former home of the balancing robo-bear?
Matt Wild: Full disclosure: I have a fondness for the Grand Ave. that goes beyond my love of all things Rocky Rococo. My first piece for The A.V. Club (way back in 2009) was a semi-serious Christmas shopping guide to the mall. Of course, all it took were a few jokes about Lady Foot Locker and the skywalk to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to set off a flurry of angry comments. Which makes me wonder: Why does everyone get so worked up when the Grand Ave. is mentioned? And why has everyone—including you, I’m guessing—all but given up on turning it around?
Not that your theory isn’t interesting. The Public Market does seem like a better downtown hub in these post-mall times. And yes, the only thing Grand Ave. seems to excel at is inspiring traffic-hungry think pieces. (Not that we’d ever stoop to such levels.) The recent push to turn the mall into a hub of offices and “creative spaces” has been nice, but it probably won’t make much of a difference if, say, Boston Store ever pulls out. So why not concentrate on the one thing a mall is still good at: retail. I know it’s been tried dozens of times over the last 20-odd years, but isn’t it worth one more shot to bring in some high-ticket stores? With all the talk of downtown revitalization these days, it seems like the perfect time to bring back something like the Gap, or go big with a downtown Apple Store. I know attracting actual businesses is a lot harder than renting out cheap space to “creative” groups, but isn’t it worth one more shot? Or do you think the ship has long since sailed, never to return, on downtown retail?
Rob: One more shot? The Grand Avenue has been around for 30 years, the last 10 of which have been as an aimless retail husk. The issue isn’t about trying to turn the mall around. The issue is establishing an identity for the mall. People who want high-end stores like Apple or Coach are going to go to Bayshore. Shoppers who want funky boutiques can wander the Third Ward. If Grand Avenue is to survive, it needs to find its niche and shank anyone who comes near that niche. For the longest time I thought the solution was as a lunchtime destination, because the one thing that is always busy is the food court. Kudos to local fast food vendors like Culver’s and Qdoba for picking up the standard dropped by places like Saz’s. But the Public Market does that too, and it does it better. The Public Market has good food, local pride, and validated parking.
Turning the Grand Avenue around means dealing with two major issues. There are a lot of underlying problems with downtown to fix first, like poor public transport and a mean case of 5-o’clock flight. Anything rebuilt on a shaky foundation isn’t going to last. Big-name stores aren’t going to want to come to a mall where they lose money. The other option is starting over fresh. There were plenty of people afraid the Public Market would become the next Grand Avenue. It didn’t, thanks to savvy marketing, knowing the marketplace, and staying true to its identity. The Public Market is an example of how to do it right. So let’s say for a moment you’re playing Dirt Mall Tycoon. How would you fix the Grand Avenue? And how would you make sure the Public Marker doesn’t suffer the same fate 10 years down the road?
Matt: Okay, forget I said anything about high-end stores. I suppose the idea of having anything fancier than a downtown Office Depot is something of a pipe dream in this bright and guilty world of suburban shopping meccas. So what if the Grand Avenue focused on smaller things like, oh, I don’t know, delis and used bookstores? As I’m sure you know, Milwaukee mainstay Jake’s Deli recently set up shop on the second floor of the mall, and Renaissance Books moved a few blocks to its new home on the mall’s first floor. A used bookstore, especially, is something that seems uniquely suited to the mall, and something that wouldn’t quite work in the hustle and bustle of the Public Market. Beyond that, why not bring back a used CD/DVD/video game store? (People still buy used CDs and DVDs, right?) So maybe it’s time to think small. Again, I know this has been tried before, but isn’t it worth one more shot? Do you think the Grand Ave. could survive and remain relevant if it was stuffed with smaller, niche shops? My few hours spent playing Dirt Mall Tycoon point to “yes.”
Rob: You might be on to something, Matt. Since the Third Ward has funky boutiques covered and the Public Market is A Taste of Milwaukee, setting up the Grand Ave. as a craft/flea market could work. The Grand Ave. comes alive when the Indoor Market runs every Wednesday. Why not move those booths into the empty stores? Set up each type of booth in a different store, so one storefront is jewelry, another is food, and so on. For the long term, the Grand Ave. should be a market place that celebrates everything cool from the city and yes, even the suburbs. Bring the best things from the city to a place where tourists unwilling to take the rental car out into the city can get them. People think Milwaukee is cheese, beer, and serial killers? Why not small shops from Sargento’s, Lakefront Brewery and, uh, Mystery One bookstore? Get them to try things out at the Grand Ave., and they’ll risk spending more money on the full version.