ALTONA -- It took 10 years for Altona business people, who wanted to build the first shopping mall in rural Manitoba, to buy up 20 small downtown properties for their site.
Then they had to find tenants. One of those was a bank. "There are not too many malls without a bank," said one of the businessmen, Elmer Hildebrand, appointed to the Order of Canada last year.
But the local Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, now CIBC, said no thanks, it was happy in its existing free-standing brick building.
So three of the biggest employers in town -- Golden West Radio (that Hildebrand represented), publisher Friesens Corporation (represented by David K. Friesen), and the canola crushing plant now owned by Bunge Ltd. -- said OK, we'll move our accounts to whichever bank opens in our mall.
CIBC had a sudden change of heart.
That's just one tale about how Altona built the first climate-controlled shopping mall in rural Manitoba. That was in 1973. Portage la Prairie, four times larger back then, didn't have a mall until 1979.
Last month, the Altona Mall, and its 40-year history, was sold to Winnipeg real estate developers, Remco Realty, a family-owned business that promises to give it a major facelift.
No one is more relieved than Hildebrand. He's been the volunteer general manager for the past 40 years, while working at his main job of building Golden West Radio into the business success it is today.
"The mall didn't have the money to hire someone to do it," he explained.
It's why the mall rent is still as low as $2 per square foot, versus $18-$20 per square foot at Southland Mall in nearby Winkler, and $45 in Grant Park Shopping Mall in Winnipeg. Hildebrand ran it as a community service. "I didn't want spaces," he said. It has had up to 30 tenants but now has about 24.
He was also a soft touch. He wanted Ten Thousand Villages in the mall but the non-profit group, which promotes fair trade with developing countries, couldn't even meet the low rent. So Hildebrand said they could just pay 10 per cent of whatever they sell. (New owners have already said Ten Thousand Villages is staying.)
The Altona Mall is an interesting artifact to small-town commerce. Back in the early 1970s, when Altona had a population of just 2,300 and falling, businesses feared they wouldn't be able to find employees if they didn't reverse the trend.
So a consortium of business people hit on the idea of building a mall, and one that's downtown, unlike in cities where malls are located in suburbs. "We didn't want it on the outskirts or the downtown would be dead," said Hildebrand.
Some parcels of land they bought from estates after owners died; some were storefronts that became vacant. The last property they needed proved the most difficult. They bought it three times.
After the first sale, the seller complained he'd been on medication and didn't know what he was doing. He then hired a lawyer who ramped up the price. The consortium agreed to the new price but the owner came back again. This time he wanted them to pay to move his building to a new location. Whatever. The business people needed that property.
As well, malls need grocery stores to bring in traffic. Penner Foods, in its nascent stages with just one outlet in Steinbach, agreed to set up a new store but its banker said no. So the Penner family created a second corporate entity, and Hildebrand and Friesen co-signed its loan.
A handful of business people designed the mall literally on the back of a napkin, and built it in three phases. So the layout is a bit strange. One hall seems almost like a blind alley. As well, you can step out the front doors and face the street that once ran straight through where the mall is today. The consortium bought the street for a dollar.
Coinciding with the opening of the mall, Altona's population started to rebound. The 40 or so investors put in about $4 million into its construction, hoping not to lose money more than make it. They eventually got most of their money back, Hildebrand said.
"I don't think Altona would be where it is today without that mall," said Jake Rempel, the 73-year-old patriarch of the new mall owner, Remco, run by his son-in-law Tom Ewert. Altona's population is about 4,200 today.
Rempel said people have told him he's crazy for buying the mall because malls have been dying out. The mall in Winkler is half shuttered and a mall in Yorkton, Sask., has closed. But bringing back to life commercial properties is Remco's specialty.
"We want to create a meeting place," Rempel said. "I want to give space to local artists and sculptors, have space where children can climb and play, and be a place where older people love coming and where they can sit."
Remco president Tom Ewert said it's the transfer of a community institution, not just a real-estate sale.
The company will draw on its relations with Winnipeg mall tenants. Marketing director Nicholas Ewert is in talks with potential retailers such as Warehouse One, Northern Reflections, Coffee Culture and Manitoba Liquor Mart.