By Eddy Gilmore

The Pivot

With Attractive Services and Amenities for Business Tenants,
the Mariner Retail & Business Center Gains Ground in Filling Square Footage

The Mariner Mall was built in 1980 by Western Properties Joint Venture 1 (which included partner Carl Pohlad, former owner of the Minnesota Twins) and ultimately sold to its current owner, Quality Investments, in 1995. To say that the retail landscape has shifted since 1995 is a massive understatement. That was the very year a small company owned by Jeff Bezos went online as Online shopping would affect the future of shopping malls all across the country – which is another story, of course.

A lot has changed in the mall industry and at the Mariner since then, and Property Manager Suzyn Cragin has been working here through it all. A 24-year-old at the time of the Mariner’s grand opening, Cragin was hired on to manage Claire’s Boutique, a retailer of jewelry and accessories. Over the course of time, her career became intertwined with the Mariner.

Eventually she was hired by Quality Investments as the mall’s administrative assistant and became the marketing director before she was tapped for her current position as manager. This role requires her to wear all three hats these days and several more. “This building is like a part of me. It’s not strictly for the income,” Cragin said of her long tenure.

The Mariner operates with a staff of two full-time and three part-time employees, and this hard-working crew handles everything. In addition, 24/7 security is provided through Per Mar Security Services. Cragin and Facilities Manager Mark Rabideaux oversee all aspects of operation, working right alongside employees and rolling up their sleeves to do whatever needs doing. “I have no problem getting up on the High Jacker, hanging electric cords or displays,” said Cragin. On the day interviews were conducted for this article, Cragin and Rabideaux were getting ready to decorate the facility for the holiday season.

Of the 267,456 square feet of space available, 79 percent is currently occupied.

In between managing and hanging decorations, Cragin is also obtaining bids from contractors for levelling the floors of the former cinema. These all have a significant slant, rendering the space currently unsuitable for other purposes. The gargantuan project, requiring tons of sand, concrete and money, may be more than the Mariner can justify spending at this time, she noted.

This past fall, GNC and Total Recreation closed their locations. The latter came as a surprise, said Cragin, since the store was profitable and had a devoted clientele. Ironically, a man who had travelled from Minnesota’s Iron Range to visit the store popped into the mall office to inquire about its closure at the very moment Cragin was discussing it.

However, four retail locations continue doing good business: Game Essentials, Diamond Royal Tack, Sears Hometown and Younkers. And the Mariner is continuing its evolution toward filling the facility with diverse businesses and organizations needing affordable office space – as well as retailers.

Of the 267,456 square feet of space available, 79 percent is currently occupied. Cragin’s goal is to bump that up to 90 percent before she retires. She radiates optimism, and much of this is due to the Mariner’s pivot toward housing business clients. While retail remains important, the Mariner’s evolving business plan has resulted in landing more business tenants. Large retail spaces have been retrofitted to suit the needs of companies and organizations of all kinds, including a day care center for children.

The rent is extremely competitive, starting out at
around $6.50 per square foot.

That’s why the complex’s formal name has been changed to the Mariner Retail & Business Center. Signage with the new name has been installed, although the gigantic Mariner Mall sign out front along North 28th Street will stay for now; changing it would cost $24,000-plus, and there’s very little return on such an investment.

Great Services and Flexibility

Quality Investments is not a large corporation. It consists of three men and one woman who pool their resources to make various investments, of which the Mariner is but one. Three of them hail from the Rice Lake/Chetek, Wis., area. They aren’t seeking to draw attention to themselves, Cragin said; their goal is to operate sound businesses and be positive elements within the business community.

And having a small, streamlined corporate owner has resulted in advantages for the Mariner. For example, since Cragin has quick access to the decision makers, she’s able to work out accommodations with business tenants that otherwise might not be possible in an overly risk-averse, bureaucratic corporate structure.

Cragin cites benefits that have proven attractive for businesses to locate at the Mariner Retail & Business Center. It is more secure than any freestanding structure. Business owners need not concern themselves with plowing, shoveling, salting icy sidewalks – or worry about the liability that goes along with these chores. The cost of heating a space within a larger building is a fraction of what it would be elsewhere in a freestanding location. And as noted earlier, the Mariner has security 24 hours a day.

“This building is like a part of me.”
– Property Manager Suzyn Cragin

Cragin is happy about the services they can provide to help organizations succeed. Her only lament is that currently, the Mariner has no fast food options on-site for tenants’ employees to enjoy during breaks and lunch hours. However, Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant resides within the Mariner, as well as Superior Sands Bar & Grill. The former offers an incredible number of dining and beverage selections (as well as very generous portions), a children’s menu and vegetarian options. The restauarant serves takeout customers, too. And the latter features not just one, but two indoor sand volleyball courts, rendering its “Bumps and Brews” events utterly unique in the Twin Ports area.

The rent at Mariner is extremely competitive, starting out at around $6.50 per square foot, which includes trash disposal, light maintenance and other amenities. The Mariner also will frequently extend breaks in the rent while spaces are being retrofitted to suit individual business needs. And this arrangement is working for numerous businesses, providing hundreds of jobs for area residents. Plus, business tenants may use the large Mariner Mall sign on North 28th Street, as well as hang banners outside on the building free of charge. For example, Game Essentials was using it to advertise its business: “Buy, Sell, Trade – Video Games and Movies – DVDs only $1.” Where else on Earth could a small, owner-operated business with no additional employees obtain free advertising – so remarkably visible – to thousands of passing motorists every day of the week? That was one of the Mariner’s attractions for Mark Hadlund, the owner/operator of Game Essentials. He noted that a woman popped into his store for the first time after seeing the sign, purchasing 70 DVDs for far less than the cost of renting them. Game Essentials specializes in video games (both new and old, including vintage Atari games like Donkey Kong) and gaming accessories. Hadlund says the Mariner has worked out well for him since he started his business in 2007. The alternative location that he could afford would have been in a drafty, 100-year-old building, where he’d be responsible for shoveling and more maintenance responsibilities.

At the Mariner, Hadlund can come to work  at his  1,200-square-foot retail space and focus on growing his business, both retail and online, rather than worrying about operational matters that provide no return on investment.

Smart Data Facility Manager Darren Strong is anxious to fill these new seats with workers.

Another satisfied business tenant is Cindy Fennessy, owner of New Horizons Children’s Center. “I’ve been open for 12 years and this is my fourth location. It is by far the best spot I’ve ever been,” she said.

The day care center is currently responsible for 80 to 90 children on any given day Fennessey required a facility that could accommodate her needs due to growth. She chose the Mariner because “They were the cheapest price – and I was able to take my design and put it right into this spot.” Her outdoor play area is large enough for 100 children, and she loves that it’s atop a base of asphalt. Previously, she was at a place with lush grass “And it didn’t even last a day,” due to all the pounding of energetic children’s feet. “This is the best of both worlds, because I don’t have to worry about the mud and muck,” Fennessey noted. She puts down woodchips in designated play areas and also has large swaths of indestructible asphalt for kids to ride bikes and run around. Other reasons she loves the location: her facility is all on one level and completely handicapped accessible; plenty of parking for staff and parents; and kids can walk indoors for some exercise when it’s too cold to go outside.

A relatively new Superior-based business, Ravin Crossbows, also occupies a large chunk of former retail space. The company uses it for offices and to manufacture its innovative crossbows, which have been lauded for their “rifle-like downrange accuracy.” The business is going gangbusters and its footprint within the Mariner has grown along with it.

Growing and Hiring

SmartData Solutions, headquartered in Eagan, Minn., and serving more than 300 clients nationwide, is another success story. About 120 employees pack its Mariner location, providing health care claims processing services. And they recently expanded to the suite across the hallway, providing room for another 50 to 60 employees. SmartData Facility Manager Darren Strong is anxious to fill these new seats with workers and he recently got a green light to increase salaries, which start out at $10 an hour. Significant bonuses come along with production and quality goals, and pay increases can come in as little as 45 days as workers who prove themselves move into positions of greater responsibility.

Strong loves SmartData’s Mariner location. It’s centrally located on a bus line and close to Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Superior High School. Strong says jobs provided by SmartData Solutions offer the ability for employees to create their own schedules. And that makes for a perfect first job for high school seniors and college students. During their final week of a senior project, for example, they can work around their studies.

“The Mariner is a good location for us.”
– Owner Dave Dittbrender, Sears Hometown

Strong says Cragin is great to work with. His organization is also lean, possessing very few managers who aren’t immediately involved in production. So the fact that the Mariner handles all the plowing and other maintenance issues has been important to SmartData’s success in Superior.

Diamond Royal Tack also distinguishes itself as a one-of-a-kind destination in the Northland. The retail store specializes in horse tack—including used horse saddles and other items sold on consignment, western-style clothing, an impressive lineup of high-quality boots and hats, horse-themed toys for the kids, leatherwork and much more. Employee Molly Martens – who helps out in a variety of capacities, such as leatherwork – said Diamond Royal Tack “would never have found this kind of square footage [pushing 5,000 square feet after a recent expansion] anywhere else. They let us do some crazy stuff.”

A travelling circus visited the Mariner Mall back in the day. Since Diamond Royal Tack’s insurance covers events allowing animals on-site, this makes an annual horse fair (hosted by Diamond Royal Tack) possible. The wide hallway within the Mariner provides ample space for half a dozen well-trained horses, and the enormous parking  lot provides a great venue for various demonstrations that would be impossible to pull off virtually anyplace else.

Dave Dittbrender, who owns and operates Sears Hometown, is similarly pleased with the Mariner’s location and amenities. “Everything you hear in the news about Sears does not affect us,” Dittbrender said in reference to Sears closing some of its stores nationwide. The reason, he explained, is that Sears Hometown was separated from the larger Sears Holdings Corp. entity years ago and is traded separately on the Nasdaq stock exchange. In fact, Sears Hometown has good cash flow and credit, which provides individual franchise owners like Dittbrender with significant buying power in his product focus area: tools, appliances and lawn and garden items. Historically, these were the areas in which Sears excelled and was most sought out for.

While Sears Hometown is owned locally, Dittbrender is also able to capitalize on the buying power and credit of the larger organization. Unlike Sears Holdings, locally owned Sears Hometown stores can carry the Whirlpool brand, for example. Sears Hometown is the fifth largest appliance retailer in the United States – and competition is fierce. “It’s really about pennies in this business,” Dittbrender noted. “The margins aren’t there, so it’s about volume.”

Since his Sears Hometown location is in Superior, it has lower sales taxes than Dittbrender’s larger counterparts across the bridge in Duluth. And when customers call, a human being actually answers the phone every time. “The Mariner is a good location for us,” Dittbrender said. “It’s centrally located and provides plenty of parking.” In fact, the facility’s services and amenities were vital for launching his Sears Hometown. “The Mariner was instrumental in my decision to take the plunge and open this business,” said Dittbrender. “Nothing else was really affordable.” He has two to three semis coming in with new merchandise each week, so the location provides ample room for them to maneuver. He also appreciates the numerous ways that the mall’s owners and management have backed him in his endeavor.

Reasons for Optimism

The Mariner Retail & Business Center has a good location and nearly unlimited parking. It’s practically a neighbor to both UW-Superior and Superior High School. The amenities it offers to area businesses, organizations and their customers are nearly unrivalled. And it remains profitable for its owners. Unlike malls across the country that have closed their doors, this complex hasn’t gone away. And as more business tenants decide to open locations on-site, there is reason to be optimistic about its future.  P.S. 

Eddy Gilmore is a freelance writer based in the Twin Ports.

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