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This article was published 3/5/2019 (331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The knacksot shells (low German for sunflower seeds) outside the Altona Mall entrance that staff have to sweep up may seem a mess to some but not mall owner Jake Rempel.
To Rempel, the broken shells form little vees for victory.
It means people are using the mall. It’s a place where people not only go to shop but to gather and stand around and chew the fat, along with the knacksot.
Six years ago Rempel’s firm, Remco Realty Ltd., purchased the half-empty Altona Mall, which claims to be the oldest mall in rural Manitoba.
This weekend, the renovated facility is officially full again with 32 tenants. The last major tenant opened Friday, Great Canadian Dollar Store, in a large 10,000 square foot space.
Not bad for a town of 4,200 people.
"The people are so grateful this mall has come back to life," said Rempel.
He got a different reaction when he bought it. People told him he was crazy. They said trying to fill a mall in a small rural town is not the same as a city mall. Besides, the mall was only 60 per cent full at a time when malls were losing market to big box stores and online retailers.
Rempel concedes there were challenges. "When you phone a national company and say I’d like to interest you in a location in Altona, they say, ‘Where’s Altona?’" he said. "Then when you say it’s an hour south of Winnipeg, they say, ‘Really!’"
That less than ringing endorsement didn’t phase him. The town is not a community without income, he told retailers, with Altona-based companies like printer Friesens Corp. with 600 employees, and Golden West Radio with 42 radio stations across the Prairies and northwestern Ontario.
"The people are so grateful this mall has come back to life" — Altona Mall owner Jake Rempel
The rent was also only about a third of what the retailer would pay in the city. That includes the "common" costs like utilities and taxes amounting to just $5.75 per square foot.
They came, they saw, they leased.
Today, the Altona Mall includes national tenants like the Source, Bank of Commerce, Rexall Drugs, a 15,000 square-foot IGA grocery, Home Hardware, BSI Insurance and the dollar store.
However, there was one local business Rempel, 78, couldn’t lure into the mall for no lack of trying: the liquor mart. Actually, it’s the local dry cleaners-liquor store amalgam called Altona Cleaners. The joke is you go in with a bag and leave with a bag and no one knows whether its your laundry or liquor.
If the mall seems shoehorned into the centre of town that’s because it is. That has helped make it a meeting place.
It took a decade but local business people finally bought up 20 small downtown properties needed for the mall site. The mall was a source of civic pride when the 40 or so business people ponied up $4 million for its construction. It opened in 1973.
The mall didn’t have much money to spare for a general manager so Golden West owner Elmer Hildebrand assumed the role on a volunteer basis for the next 40 years until Rempel’s purchase.
One of the mall’s oldest tenants is Border Real Estate, which has leased space since 1978.
"To revive an older mall is not an easy task," said Border realtor Mike Kroeker. "(Rempel) brought businesses in from larger centres to take a chance on Altona. It’s an incredible feat he has accomplished."
In fact, the Altona Mall is bucking the trend with rural malls. Malls in larger centres like Selkirk and Portage la Prairie have empty spaces and are looking their age, and the mall in Winkler is half empty. The Winkler mall was recently purchased by Canadian Tire, which has a store next door.
"A town becomes attractive as it has more services to offer. The entire community benefits, including realtors," Kroeker said.
Some other mall tenants include the Altona Diner, which features Mennonite food like farmer sausage and borscht and home-made pies.
Another tenant is Ten Thousand Villages, the non-profit fair trade store, which has a longstanding agreement with the mall to operate rent-free.
Bringing properties back to life is Remco’s speciality but this was its first mall. It typically buys warehouses and commercial buildings, fixes them up and finds tenants. It boasts more than 200 tenants, mostly in Winnipeg buildings.