Brandishing her shoe carnival bag, Jennifer Huss turned a corner at Merle Hay Mall on Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s the old Younkers store,” she said to herself, staring through a row of 10 tall windows into an empty room, the lights of a bleak lady’s scent showing the only sign of life.
Huss came to the mall once a week, usually for window shopping and to stretch his legs. But Younkers has been closed since 2018, and these days she’s rarely here once a month.
But that could change soon. While Huss bought a new pair of shoes Wednesday, elected officials from Des Moines, Urbandale and Polk counties gathered in the parking lot in front of the store building and shoveled a large pile of ceremonial earth to celebrate a planned transformation.
A state panel has awarded Urbandale $26.5 million to convert the old store into a 3,500-seat arena for the Des Moines Buccaneers junior hockey team. The project, which will also receive an undisclosed amount of money from the city, is key to rejuvenating the mall, officials with the team and the mall said Wednesday.
“Today is a fixed day,” said Liz Holland, CEO of Merle Hay Investors.
Opening of the arena planned for October 2023
Michael Devlin, co-owner of the Buccaneers, said developers should start work on the building next month. The team hopes to move in by next October, the start of the 2023/24 season.
Officials at the team, which plays and trains at an aging arena at Hickman Road and 73rd St. in Urbandale, have said they need a facelift of facilities to attract better players. As in other sports, the Junior Hockey League holds a draft every year. But players can decline an offer if they feel the team is unable to prepare them for the next level.
“A lot of the other teams in our league have better facilities,” said Devlin. “And that helps steer players to where they want to go. And I think now, with what we can offer here, we’re going to have players that are like, ‘I really want to come to Des Moines.'”
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Holland, meanwhile, is working to attract more people to the 63-year-old mall with attractions beyond shopping, like the Flix Brewhouse cinema, Selfie WRLD and the GameDay arcade and sports bar.
Overall, the Bucs project will include the arena, three additional ice sheets, a hotel and renovated pedestrian corridors connecting the facilities. The mall’s Kohl’s is moving to make way for the project, building a new store where the mall’s Sears once stood, which also closed in 2018. Holland expects this project to be completed this fall.
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Walking past the entrance of the Younkers store on Wednesday, Huss said she would like to see more life around the mall. She scanned the area: a Kay jewelry store, a model train shop, and a Hop-A-Lot inflatable playground rental shop, all with shutters.
She looked back at Younkers.
“It’s going to be great,” she said.
Rising costs require plan adjustments
According to budgets submitted to IEDA, the cost of the arena increased by 24% to $58.9 million last year due to the rising cost of building materials such as steel. To compensate, the developer has borrowed an additional $5.4 million and issued $8.9 million of equity to a private, unnamed investor.
The team has also cut some expenses, dropping plans for patios and an LED-lit sign outside the arena.
Government funding for the development comes through its district reinvestment program, under which the government covers developers’ expenses based on projections of how much money customers will spend at a site.
Beginning in 2024, state officials will examine total sales tax and hotel-motel tax revenue generated at the mall every three months. If the revenue exceeds the amount that was earned at the mall prior to new construction, the state will give Urbandale that extra money. The state has pledged to provide up to $26.5 million over 20 years.
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Urbandale officials, in turn, will issue a bond to generate upfront money that Buccaneers owners can use to build the stadium. In February, the city forecast the bond would earn the team $22 million.
Aaron DeJong, Urbandale’s deputy director of economic development, said he’s not yet sure the bond will generate less money for homebuilders given the rise in interest rates this year. He said Wednesday that Urbandale officials are drafting a local stimulus package for the Buccaneers and hope to present a proposal to City Council by the end of July.
IEDA last year provided $100 million in provisional district reinvestment funding for six projects, including a soccer stadium in downtown Des Moines. After cities submitted updated applications in February, the State Council plans to give final approval for developments this year.
In addition to the arena project, in April IEDA gave final approval for a $17 million allocation for the renovation of Fort Dodge’s Crossroads Mall. Des Moines officials are still awaiting approval for state funding for the football stadium, which has received an interim grant of $23 million from the IEDA.
Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Des Moines Register. You can reach him at email@example.com, 515-284-8215 or on Twitter at @LetsJett.