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Uptown Willmar hopes to convey a positive vibe at what used to be Kandi Mall

RockStep Capital, owner of the Kandi Mall in Willmar and several other mall properties across the nation, has launched a rebrand of all those properties, including the new Uptown Willmar. RockStep President Andy Weiner feels the new name has a more positive feel to it and better represents what they are trying to do at the retail hub, including turning it into more than just a shopping destination.

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The Kandi Mall recently changed its name to Uptown Willmar. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The days of the Kandi Mall are over but it is just the beginning for Uptown Willmar .

According to Andy Weiner, president of RockStep Capital who have owned the Willmar shopping hub on South First Street since 2015, the new name is an illustration of the transition the Kandi Mall and others like it are undergoing in the ever-changing retail landscape. The mall first opened in 1973.

"In properties like Uptown Willmar, they are transforming themselves, from something that is 100 percent retail to just a portion of it being retail and the rest being other," Weiner said. "As these properties move toward multi-use the word mall, which signifies retail, doesn't apply anymore."

RockStep wants to turn away from being just a mall, which Weiner said is gaining an unfavorable perception as retail struggles. The hope is Uptown will become a vital and revitalized commercial area of Willmar.

"Rebranding with Uptown has much more positive energy associated with it, compared to mall that quite frankly has a negative energy associated with it," Weiner said.

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It will take until the end of the year for the entire rebranding process, including new signage at Uptown Willmar, to be completed. RockStep has already launched new websites for their properties, including Willmar .

The new name is only a single piece of the vision RockStep has for Uptown Willmar.

While Weiner said Retail will always remain an important part of Uptown's identity. The center has had a run of bad luck with stores closing, including the imminent closure of JCPenney. There are positives though. One current tenant is looking to double in size, Weiner said. And, in the old Kmart site, Harbor Freight opened its doors this month and Kohl's arrived in the fall of last year.

"They are doing extremely well," Weiner said.

There have also been ongoing discussions with two other national retailers interested in filling the remaining space by Kohl's and Harbor Freight. The coronavirus pandemic has slowed their plans, but Weiner is still hopeful of their arrival.

"They are both in St. Cloud. People are driving to St. Cloud to go see them," Weiner said.

Uptown Willmar is also welcoming non-traditional tenants. Malls in other locations are now homes to medical facilities, entertainment venues and educational organizations. While the bankruptcy of JCPenney is unfortunate, it has opened the door for new opportunities at Uptown Willmar.

"We have two uses, non-traditional uses for the former JCPenney box," Weiner said. "Non-retail."

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Weiner is not at liberty to name any of the new tenants, but in the next few months he should be able to make some public announcements.

To assist in bringing new business to Uptown Willmar, RockStep Capital has implemented a new rental program which offers potential tenants reduced or free rent. RockStep will also provide up to $2,000 to a qualified business to assist with working capital. Businesses do not need to be retail to be eligible for the program. More information can be found on Uptown Willmar's website.

"We want to encourage people to come out and start a business. It could be an office, e-commerce fulfillment. Instead of running a business out of their garage or out of their home they can run it out of Uptown," Weiner said.

It does take time to put new tenants and programs into place. It can take months or years to work out an agreement with a national chain.

"There are a lot of things happening. It takes a year or two for a lot of this to happen, especially when you are working with a national tenant," Weiner said.

Bringing new tenants into the building will also help the outside, specifically the parking lot. The massive lot is not in the best of condition, with large potholes and cracks throughout.

"We know it is a problem. We are sorry it is a problem," Weiner said.

As a new tenant moves in, RockStep will do parking lot improvements to the area nearest to the new business. That is what it did when Kohl's moved in. The vast size of the lot makes it economically unfeasible for RockStep to fix the entire space at once. Its only real option is doing it piece by piece as tenants move in, and filling potholes in the summer.

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"Right now, giving that the mall sector has been struggling so much, in areas like Willmar, we have had to prioritize our capital to get new tenants to come here. New tenants are the lifeblood of markets like Willmar," Weiner said.

The community can help make Uptown Willmar a success by being patient and positive and not give up on it as Uptown Willmar continues through its transition, Weiner said. He also asks entrepreneurs to give Uptown Willmar a try for their business.

"Uptown is the right attitude and the right energy for where we want to take the property," Weiner said.

Shelby Lindrud is a reporter with the West Central Tribune of Willmar. Her focus areas are arts and entertainment, agriculture, features writing and the Kandiyohi County Board.

She can be reached via email slindrud@wctrib.com or direct 320-214-4373.


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