Sandra Mulkey and her son Caleb, 3, set up a Christmas tree at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. Mulkey is kicking off a toy drive for foster children. She said that she has not collected toys at the Mendenhall Mall for the last few years because of low traffic. However, she said the increased traffic at the now mostly-full mall prompted her to set up there. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Mall together now

Community focus revitalizes mall

Patsy Anderson-Dunn has her hands all over the Mendenhall Mall — literally.

As her parents started building the mall in 1977, they insisted that she leave a handprint in each corner of the foundation. As the mall continued to expand, she kept laying her hand in the foundation — even traveling home from college in 1991 to put a handprint in the final addition.

Now, she has her hands firmly engaged in running the mall and breathing new life into the space. But, the journey back to mall owner was not one she expected.

Anderson-Dunn, who splits her time between Juneau and Oregon, where she is the chief financial officer for a construction company, didn’t plan on becoming a mall owner in the spring of 2020, having left the business when her family sold the mall 14 years prior.

At the time, the economy was in a coma due to COVID-19. Federal, state and local officials were urging all Americans to stay home as much as possible.

However, as the pandemic was beginning, the mall’s owner at the time called and said “we’re done.”

“That happened in April, we signed the papers in May and we got up here in June,” Anderson-Dunn said in a Monday morning phone interview.

Anderson-Dunn, who describes herself as a “mall rat,” said she was disappointed to see that the occupancy rate had fallen to 28%, and several maintenance items needed to be addressed on her first walk-through in early June of 2020.

“I hyperventilated a little and thought ‘where do we go from here?’” she said.

Holiday decorations at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Holiday decorations at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

[Small businesses still struggling due to pandemic’s effect on travel]

Keeping it local

Today, the mall is 98% occupied and full of locally owned businesses, including several that left other locations to relocate in the Mendenhall Mall.

This experience stands in stark contrast to malls across the country. According to the New York Times, malls are being battered by forces that include changing shopping habits, empty storefronts, and a struggle to lure shoppers back inside after last year’s pandemic shutdowns.

Anderson-Dunn said that attracting local businesses and the completion of deferred maintenance and increased security are the critical elements in the mall’s turnaround.

Lisa Ibias, owner of Alaskan Dames, recently relocated the upscale resale clothing and home decor shop back to the Mendenhall Mall.

“I was here back in 1997, and I was attracted back to the location,” she said in a call Wednesday morning.

Ibias said that security and the “family friendly atmosphere” were crucial considerations in her return.

“We love it. We are starting to get more traffic. Lots of people are walking through. And we don’t have to work so hard to get people to visit us,” Ibias said.

Anderson-Dunn said that community activities are a vital element in her strategy to revitalize the mall in addition to local shops.

She said the mall is now available an hour before opening each morning so walkers can get some exercise before the shops open for the day.

“They can walk inside where it’s warm, dry and bright,” she said.

Lisa Ibias, owner of Alaskan Dames, stands outside her store at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. She recently relocated the upscale resale clothing and home decor shop back to the Mendenhall Mall. Ibias said that security and the “family friendly atmosphere” were crucial considerations in her return. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Lisa Ibias, owner of Alaskan Dames, stands outside her store at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. She recently relocated the upscale resale clothing and home decor shop back to the Mendenhall Mall. Ibias said that security and the “family friendly atmosphere” were crucial considerations in her return. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

[Wintry weather coincides with busy travel days]

She’s also focused on holiday and weekend events.

She said a recent trunk-or-treat event attracted about 3,000 people in a single afternoon.

As the holiday season approaches, Anderson-Dunn said that the mall will feature opportunities to visit with Santa — and a mailbox to leave letters if he’s not in at the time.

She said the mall is hosting special Makers Markets each weekend during the holiday season and will continue to offer them the second Saturday of every month after the new year.

“We keep it local. Being local, I know that we need real people invested in our community. That makes the money come back,” she said. “We brought back the light, bright, warm welcoming feeling. We always have quarters in our pocket to give to kids for the rides. It’s a community place and we will keep doing local things.”

Anderson-Dunn said she’s happy to have the mall back in her life.

“This is a labor of love. We are reinvesting. I remember running down the halls of the mall as a kid and it brings me a lot of joy to see it still happening. This is a work of passion. We are not going to let a family legacy go,” she said.

Sandra Mulkey and her son Caleb, 3, set up a Christmas tree at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. Mulkey is kicking off a toy drive for foster children. She said that she has not collected toys at the Mendenhall Mall for the last few years because of low traffic. However, she said the increased traffic at the now mostly-full mall prompted her to set up there. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Sandra Mulkey and her son Caleb, 3, set up a Christmas tree at the Mendenhall Mall on Nov. 24. Mulkey is kicking off a toy drive for foster children. She said that she has not collected toys at the Mendenhall Mall for the last few years because of low traffic. However, she said the increased traffic at the now mostly-full mall prompted her to set up there. (Dana Zigmund/Juneau Empire)

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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