A half-empty strip mall known as Fairview Heights Plaza will get a boost when a regional retailer becomes an anchor tenant, filling a space that’s been vacant since Sports Authority moved out four years ago.
Mayor Mark Kupsky made the announcement at a recent City Council meeting. Officials aren’t naming the company or estimating when the store will open.
“They’ve signed a lease, but they’ve asked that we don’t share the news until they get farther along in the process,” said Paul Ellis, economic development director.
On Friday morning, a backhoe and two trucks for plumbing, heating and cooling companies were parked outside the storefront, and workers were installing underground pipes.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
The strip mall’s other tenants are Gordmans, Guitar Center and Sears Outlet.
They’re part of a larger unofficial business district along Ludwig Drive, north of Interstate 64 and west of Illinois 159. City officials have been concerned about its economic health and well-being in recent years.
“(The strip mall) is in receivership,” Ellis said. “There’s an office on Wall Street that is holding the property. They tried to auction it off — last November, I think — and it was not successful.”
Representatives of the holding company, Torchlight Investors, and property manager, L3 Corporation in St. Louis, could not be reached for comment.
The city of Fairview Heights recently spent $7,500 to fund an Urban Land Institute study of the business district and get recommendations on how it could be revitalized.
The new retailer at Fairview Heights Plaza will help, Ellis said. “It’s very important to have a strong anchor tenant for a center, and that center hasn’t had one for a while.”
In 2014, Sports Authority moved to Fairview City Centre, across from St. Clair Square. The store closed for good two years later, when its parent company filed for bankruptcy and liquidated. Dick’s Sporting Goods later went into that space.
Other businesses along Ludwig Drive include Planet Fitness, Ginger Buffet & Grill, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Agostino’s Italian Restaurant, Bob Evans, Marcus St. Clair Cine, Al’s Automotive and several hotels.
Applebee’s Grill & Bar closed in 2016, and Joe’s Crab Shack closed last year. There are several vacant storefronts in Fairview Heights Plaza.
“They struggle over here for some reason,” said Paul Knowlton, 68, of Fairview Heights, who was working out at Planet Fitness on Friday morning. “I don’t know why. I guess you just have to get the right mix of businesses to come in. I think that’s the key.”
Rebranding the business district
Knowlton said the area looks better now that the former Applebee’s building has been renovated with new awnings, a newly paved parking lot and other improvements. Rio Grande Mexican restaurant is expected to open there soon.
Earlier this year, the former Houlihan’s building was remodeled and rebranded as TBD Bar + Social.
Juicy Crab is supposed to replace Joe’s Crab Shack this fall, but the property still has the old signs, covered windows, tall weeds and two dumpsters in the parking lot.
The Planet Fitness gym is preparing for a big change. At the end of the year, it will become independent under the name Blue Fire Fitness.
“The owner just decided it was time to move away from Planet Fitness,” said employee Kyle Ziegel, 20. “All the employees are staying. All the equipment is staying.”
The Urban Land Institute study was conducted by a “technical assistance panel” of its St. Louis affiliate. They looked at possible redevelopment of the unofficial business district around Fairview Heights Plaza and development of 72 acres of land to the north.
Their report suggested establishing an official business district, possibly extending east across Illinois 159; improving access and signage; adding green space and paths for pedestrians and bicyclists; and redesigning parking.
“The panel strongly encourages the city to consider alternative uses at the site — uses that compliment and do not compete with the surrounding, successful retail establishments,” the report stated.
It mentioned possibilities such as a craft brewery, indoor sports facility, office building or specialty entertainment venue.
The panel’s final recommendation was for the city to table efforts related to the 72 acres.
“The owner has demonstrated that he is not motivated to sell the property,” the report stated. “... The site also lacks basic and significant infrastructure improvements, including electrical service, roads or sewer service.”
Ellis believes the city’s willingness to initiate the study may have helped attract the new tenant to Fairview Heights Plaza because it showed a commitment to the business district.
One person ambivalent about change is Tom Berrisford, 74, of Fairview Heights, who works out at Planet Fitness three times a week and eats at Ginger Buffet & Grill once a week.
“I’m not sure I want to make it better because the parking would be a lot more difficult,” he said. “No, no. I”m just kidding.”