By NEIL JOHNSON
The Janesville Gazette
JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) — When Julie Cubbage, Janesville Mall General Manager, walks her mall’s concourse, she’s alone with the echoes of her own footfalls against shining tile.
In the half-dark of the 650,000-square-foot mall, which has been almost completely shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, Cubbage’s only daily companions are the faceless mannequins standing sentinel behind caged-off entries to the mall’s idled shops.
The mannequins’ attire is in an early spring fashion left untouched since March 17. That’s the day the mall shut to the public because of Gov. Tony Evers’ orders to protect public health in the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now run weeks and will continue for untold weeks or months.
(On May 11, Evers allowed nearly all nonessential businesses to reopen as long as they serve no more than five customers at a time, partially lifting the restriction that has kept them closed for weeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.)
Cubbage said the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s corresponding business shutdowns and bans on public gatherings have the mall and other idled retailers facing perhaps their biggest-ever existential threat.
“My biggest fear is we will have stores that simply won’t reopen later this year. This pandemic has just been devastating to a lot of retailers. We were already in a retail apocalypse, so to speak, with the shift to online shopping. This pandemic is not helping with that,” Cubbage told The Janesville Gazette.
Is anybody in there?
Cubbage is among a skeleton staff who returns to the idled mall day after day. She wears a cloth face mask and rubber gloves while walking the concourse. Canned music plays from ceiling speakers to a crowd of no one.
“It’s really kind of creepy to hear your own breathing echo off the walls and to see no people, just mannequins,” Cubbage said.
The retail industry, which provides about 14,000 jobs in Rock County, has undergone a shakeup of layoffs and furloughs because of state-mandated temporary closures. Some retailers are allowed to continue as “essential” businesses, absorbing an overflow in consumer demand.
Increased demand and strain related to the pandemic has spurred some retailers to begin aggressively hiring. Some local hotspots right now include Blain’s Farm & Fleet and Walgreens and CVS pharmacies, according to recent online job listings.
Ups and downs
For years, Cubbage said, she’s watched the mall industry struggle to disprove analysts who’ve declared brick-and-mortar retail a dead industry. A pandemic now is bleeding money from mall retailers and malls themselves, more so every day as malls are forced into a void of mandated isolation.
“It’s hard to get rent when retailers don’t have any sales. They don’t want to pay their rent because they don’t have any sales,” Cubbage said. “It’s a vicious cycle that every mall is going through right now.”
The Janesville Mall has battled for years to redefine itself as a retail venue after it lost three major anchor stores since the end of the Great Recession. The mall in the last four years has added a few large chain stores as anchors. And more recently, it’s drawn a growing number of independent, mom-and-pop retailers ranging from fresh food shops to barber shops.
The most recent brightening in prospects for the 50-year-old mall came earlier this year when the city announced it was negotiating with the mall’s owners, RockStep Capital, on a deal to bring a multi-million-dollar indoor sports complex and the junior hockey franchise Janesville Jets to the site now occupied by the defunct Sears store.
But recently, a group of private backers for the sports complex asked the city to shelve planning on the project, most likely until next year. The backers say private fundraising for the $30 million project has flatlined during the COVID pandemic.
Cubbage said she couldn’t comment on the effect COVID-19 has had on the mall’s bid for the sports complex. RockStep Capital officials did not respond to Gazette requests for comment on what a delay to the sports complex project could mean to the mall.
Working through it
During a walk through the mall, Cubbage pointed out one new mall tenant, Five Star Barber Shop, which she said opened on the north end of the concourse just before the pandemic hit.
It’s one of the small, independent, local businesses Cubbage said the mall is trying to help get government small-business rescue loans to bridge the COVID-19 shutdown. But many of the loan programs are tailored to businesses that are firmly established or have been in operation for at least a few years, she said.
“We’ve thought for years we’d entered a new era of retail, but I wonder what we will see now,” Cubbage said. “This is a very different time, and I don’t think some things are ever going to go back to being how they were ever again.”