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Carson's — a popular shopping destination in Northwest Indiana since at least the 1950s — plans to shutter all its remaining stores in the next 10 to 12 weeks after a liquidation fire sale.

The closure of the Carson's department store is a death knell for the Woodmar Mall, the enclosed mall at Indianapolis Boulevard and 165th Street in Hammond that was largely demolished in 2006 after a 52-year run. All that remains today of the V-shaped mall that included the Court of Lions, the Court of Turtles and a popular arcade is the "Woodmar" sign and the three-story, 115,000-square-foot Carson's store that would be almost impossible to fill in today's retail environment.

It's another major blow to what's left of the Marquette Mall and Office Tower in Michigan City, where the J.C. Penney and the mall's largely vacant interior were both shuttered in recent years. Sears, which has been closing stores across the country for years, would be the only department store left in the shopping center at U.S. 20 and Franklin Street.

The winding down of Carson's parent company, The Bon Ton Stores Inc., which filed for bankruptcy in February and failed to strike a deal to keep the chain of 260 department stores open as a going concern, will leave a 144,000-square-foot hole at the Southlake Mall in Hobart. Carson's has been an anchor tenant there since 1975. Fellow anchor Sears is looking to sell off its building in a lease-back deal.

The massive vacancy Carson's will leave behind comes at a time of mounting retail vacancies nationwide, and in the Region. The Village mall in Gary is mostly empty and the Century Mall in Merrillville is almost entirely dead, except for the occasional Halloween costume pop-up shop.

Closures felt nationwide

U.S. retailers announced a record closure of 105 million square feet in 2017, and already have announced the further closure of 77 million square feet through the first three-and-a-half months of this year, according to CoStar Group Inc.

Online shopping has gotten most of the blame, though some analysts have been saying brick-and-mortar retail is overbuilt and overdue for a market correction.

"Traditional malls have been facing economic challenges since the early 2000s, as consumer shopping habits began to change with the rise of the internet," said Indiana University Northwest Indiana assistant professor of economics Micah Pollak. "While traditional malls are able to survive an increase in turnover among smaller stores, it can be very challenging to deal with the loss of one or more anchor stores, especially in the current market conditions. In many ways, the golden age of the 'big-box' store is coming to an end, and replacing an anchor store is becoming difficult, if not impossible."

Traditional enclosed malls have been forced to lease out space to nontraditional tenants like community centers, gyms, offices and churches, Pollak said.

"The 'retail apocalypse' that has been sweeping the United States in recent years has been hard on all retailers, but especially hard on malls, as they reflect a concentrated area of retailers," he said. "At the same time, larger shopping malls have the advantage of being able to coordinate across all their available space and often have the resources to significantly alter the course of the mall. Large shopping malls that take a proactive approach, are willing to consider creative solutions and are able to adapt in response to the changing retail landscape are likely to remain successful."

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Creativity helps fill spaces

Southlake Mall has been creative about filling space, opening a retail training center and getting stores at River Oaks Center in Calumet City to open new outposts in Hobart, including the Oooh Wee Candy and Cereal Bar and the Mr. Kay's shoe store. It's brought in more locally owned shops and ran a pop-up competition that will give the entrepreneur with the best idea four months free rent at a kiosk.

A new rival could crop up right down the road. The developer CDP Partners is eyeing a $250 million development at Interstate 65 and U.S. 231 in Crown Point that would include an outlet mall with 80 to 100 stores.

The proposed Fountains of Crown Point, which also would include a theater, specialty grocery store and restaurants, could peel away customers from both the Southlake Mall a few miles up the highway and the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets in Michigan City.

Chris Juricic, general manager at Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets, said the existing outlet mall at the former Pullman factory just west of downtown Michigan City drew from a wider area than just Northwest Indiana and continues to bring in new stores like the new Kate Spade store announced last week to keep the shopping experience fresh.

"Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets attracts shoppers from Illinois, Indiana and parts of Michigan, and we are continually scouting the latest and most relevant retail experience for our shoppers," Juricic said. "We have exciting announcements coming that we’re eager to share very soon."

Though some Crown Point residents may choose to shop closer to home, the proposed outlet mall potentially would have the biggest impact on Lighthouse Place, Pollak said. 

"While there will be some competition with the Southlake Mall, the proposed new outlet mall in Crown Point is more likely to compete with Lighthouse Place mall, in drawing customers from both Northwest Indiana and the Chicago area," he said. "How strong the competition is with the Lighthouse Place mall will depend on a couple of factors. First, how similar the available stores are to those at the Lighthouse Place mall, which we don’t yet know. Second, how effectively Crown Point can market the outlet mall as a 'destination experience.' Crown Point is one of the fastest-developing cities in Northwest Indiana, with recent growth in high-end restaurants, coffee shops and breweries as well as a new multifunction community center that includes an ice rink, other amenities and will provide a home to the cities many summer festivals.

This development, coupled with its historic Lake County Courthouse and square, is making Crown Point an attractive destination city, in ways similar to Valparaiso, and is likely to make the new outlet mall highly competitive."

Crown Point likely would get a major economic boost, but shoppers would still make the trip to Michigan City, where they're likely to spend a day, Pollak said.

"Unlike more traditional malls, outlet malls are typically designed as destination shopping experiences," he said. "Destination shopping is a retail concept in which customers plan a longer trip to the area of the outlet mall. While shopping plays a central role, the trip often also includes entertainment and visiting restaurants and other attractions. For example, customers may travel to the Lighthouse Place outlet mall in Michigan City to visit the beach, zoo and restaurants in addition to shopping. In this way, outlet malls tend to provide a different product and serve a different base of consumers than traditional malls."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.