Kautz tags Burnsville Center as ‘urgent’ challenge

Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz calls the future of Burnsville Center in a changing retail environment an “urgent” community challenge. (Photo by John Gessner)

Enters city in Bloomberg grant competition

At a national mayors conference in June, Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz had the opportunity to pick an “urgent” challenge in her community.

She chose Burnsville Center, the 40-year-old regional shopping mall, which — like many malls across the country — is challenged by the rise of online retailing.

Kautz entered Burnsville in the Bloomberg Philanthropies 2017 Mayors Challenge, a grant competition encouraging cities to craft solutions for urgent problems.

Make no mistake, Kautz said — the viability of the 96-acre Burnsville Center property along County Road 42 is “urgent” for the community.

“We cannot afford in Burnsville for that property to go dark,” Kautz said.

She said she’s concerned about high-profile bankruptcies in the retail sector and store closings. A stroll through the mall reveals several dark spaces with leasing signs. Sears, one of four anchor stores and one of four Burnsville Center property owners, is expected to close by mid-September. Sears Holdings is shuttering 18 Sears stores and two Kmart locations in another wave of closings for the troubled retailer.

Burnsville’s Economic Development Commission and a citizen committee working with officials to update the city’s comprehensive plan have called for a study of the Burnsville Center area’s future.

“Our citizens and our visitors are also noticing dark spaces within the mall,” Kautz said. “For me, it is important for Burnsville to help, to encourage the property owners, to make sure that this property doesn’t go dark.”

Kautz, whose solo action to enter the Mayors Challenge raised some eyebrows among her City Council colleagues, took the action at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami Beach. She is a past conference president, member of the board of trustees and chair of the conference’s Finance and Audit Committee.

As one of the first 300 cities to respond, Burnsville secured a Bloomberg-paid consultant visit to the city. Kautz said the consultant will meet with city officials and others to prepare the city for the next step in the Mayors Challenge — applying for cash awards to help cities tackle their challenges.

In October, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce cash awards of $5 million to a grand prize-winning city and $1 million to four others. Awards of $100,000 will go to 35 other cities. The money will help cities create a coast-to-coast “laboratory” for “civic solutions,” according to Bloomberg.

The consultant will be in Burnsville Sept. 11, Kautz said. Burnsville Center general manager Joe Duperre will attend, along with an executive vice president of development for Tennessee-based mall owner CBL & Associates Properties, Kautz said. (Macy’s, JCPenney and Seritage, a real estate investment trust, also own parts of the mall, she said.)

Others attendees will include Burnsville Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Harmening, Experience Burnsville Executive Director Amie Burrill, city planning commissioners Vince Workman and Jim Bradrick, Economic Development Commission member Jeff LaFavre, City Council Member Dan Kealey and city staffers Jenni Faulkner and Skip Nienhaus, Kautz said.

“You have to have a group of people coming together to help be intentional and proactive about what we need to do,” the mayor said.

“I’m just excited that we have a consultant. Having a consultant allows us to have some insight into how we can write a successful grant application,” she said.

Council Member Kealey called the Bloomberg program “a great grant opportunity that we shouldn’t pass up.”

But Council Member Dan Gustafson criticized Kautz’s solo action at an Aug. 15 council work session. He said the full council should have had a say in identifying Burnsville’s “urgent” challenge.

Council Member Bill Coughlin opposed entering Burnsville Center in the Mayors Challenge. The mall’s owners “are a lot better qualified than anybody on this council” to decided the property’s future, he said. “They can hire the best experts in the country to figure out what they want to do.”

Gustafson agreed.

“Why are we putting money into that when they can put money into it?” he said. “What we have to do is just get out of their way and just say, ‘What you want to do, come to us, we’ll let you do it.’ ”

Kealey responded that given the chance, Gustafson would have “jumped all over free money” like the mayor did.

“The entire country is suffering mall problems,” Kealey said, “and we could use all the help we can get.”

Kautz questioned whether mall owners have been proactive in addressing their problems. The city now finds itself in a “critical situation,” she said.

“I love my community, and if there’s anything I can do to help solve this problem, I will, and that’s what I’m doing with this,” Kautz said. “It’s not costing the taxpayers of Burnsville anything.”

In entering the competition, she also identified the strip mall west of Burnsville Center, whose tenants include Unique Thrift Store, as part of the problem area.