COLUMBUS, Ind. – As malls struggle across the country to stay open, one central Indiana community is taking over its indoor mall with the hopes of increasing the impact it has on the community by adding an indoor sports complex.
On Friday, the City of Columbus, along with Columbus Regional Health and the Heritage Fund, which is the county's community foundation, announced it has reached a deal with the owner of the Fair Oaks Mall to buy the 35-acre property.
The city said it has spent nearly two years looking for ways to enhance indoor and year-round recreational offerings to the community.
"When this opportunity presented itself and the project began to take shape, we decided to call on a few of our trusted partners to help make this happens," said Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop in a press release. "Columbus enjoys a legacy as a community that works together to tackle not only our needs, but our aspirations, and this project is no different."
Columbus Parks and Recreations Department Director Mark Jones said the plans, while in the very early stages, call for putting turf fields in the mall. Wood courts would also likely be available to put over the turf, depending on what kinds of activities were scheduled. The building could also host conventions and fairs.
The plans also call for the city's parks department to relocate its offices to the mall, allowing the office to oversee the facility, at least in the beginning stages.
The city said repurposing the dwindling mall property for better economic use has been a community issue.
"Nationally, trends for those types of retail spaces aren’t surviving," said Jones. "It’s been going downhill with the anchor stores Carson's and J.C. Penney over the last few months. That was really the big hit for that mall."
Back in March, Anderson saw its mall close its doors for good. The move in Columbus might have stopped the mall from ever being vacant.
"The city knew down the road, what is this going to be," Jones said. "It’s more than likely not going to get new tenants and all of a sudden have a big spike. Is it going to have a bunch of weeds in the parking lot and be an eyesore in the middle of your town."
Jones said the city will likely close on the deal at the end of 2018 and that there likely would not be any changes to the site during the following year. The city will work with mall tenants and discuss if they want to move out or stay around for the building's next chapter.
The city said teaming up with Columbus Regional Health was an easy decision, as sports and parks complexes and healthcare services are a natural fit.
"Columbus Regional Health holds a sustained history of serving this community, not only for healthcare services, but as a partner and economic catalyst to enhance our community," said Columbus Regional Health President and CEO Jim Bickel.
Erin Hawkins is the director of marketing at the Columbus Area Visitors Center. She said the community saw close to $12 million come to town in 2017 that was generated through sports. However, most of that money came from summer events.
With the addition of a year-round facility, money flowing into the community could rise dramatically.
"Sports tourism is a huge segment for us," Hawkins said. "Last year, almost 170,000 sports visitors came to Columbus."