HIBBING — In its heyday, the Irongate Mall bustled with life. On any given evening, shoppers sauntered through stores lined with aisles of clothing, books, appliances, electronics and gifts, before stopping for a bite to eat and taking in the latest blockbuster on the big screen. It was a place of convenience, where teenagers could hang out on Saturday nights, eating cheese fries and feeding spare change into candy machines.
What followed, however, was a classic smalltown tale that mirrored many across the country: big box stores moved in and economic shifts sent small retailers toppling like dominos. Rent increased on the aging, emptied storefronts to make up for the losses and few entrepreneurs were eager to fill the voids.
Aside from the occasional festival or craft sale, the noise in the once buzzing halls were largely reduced to minimal blimps of traffic and the dull, sneaker squeaks of indoor walking enthusiasts.
But last summer, Edward Cohen took full ownership of the Irongate, located just off Highway 169 on the southwest side of Hibbing.
Kate Racanelli, a property manager with New York-based Buckingham Properties, spoke to the Hibbing Daily Tribune on Cohen’s behalf last month. She explained that their team has since been hard at work redeveloping the old shopping plaza into something more sustainable for the times.
“We are trying to keep the Irongate alive and think of new uses for it,” Racanelli said. “We’re now trying to turn it into a multi-use property. We’re hoping to attract new tenants like medical offices, research facilities, industrial companies, event restaurants, entertainment centers and sports facilities.”
It’s a business shift they believe will help fill the space and maintain flexibility in a changing economy without having to compete with established big box stores. “Because we’re looking to change and get multi-use tenants, we think having a place like Walmart next door and a place like Lowes across the street could benefit them,” Racanelli said.
Cohen, who earned a Ph.D in engineering from the University of Nottingham in England, was once an engineering professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, before transitioning into the world of commercial and residential property development. Racanelli said that Cohen became one of several partners to purchase the Irongate from a bank after it was foreclosed on in 1992.
Over the years, new businesses briefly moved in — Peebles in 2008, Senor Patrons in 2009, Animal House in 2011, the Gold Guys in 2013 — yet the majority of the nearly 30 storefronts would eventually close up shop, leaving the five that remain today.
“As time has gone on, things have changed with brick and mortar,” Racanelli said. “With Amazon and what have you, retail has been a little tough for everyone — including outside of Hibbing and Minnesota.”
Racanelli said because the Irongate’s three owners were all balancing other professions, they decided in 2019 that the best course of action would be for one person to focus on and take full responsibility of the property. One owner would mean faster decisions and a single vision.
Cohen decided that person should be him.
Since purchasing the property this past summer, the building’s longtime red, yellow, tan and olive motif has been painted over in tan. Local companies replaced the roof and upgraded the lighting inside and outside of the building. The front parking lot was repaired and low spots in the back lot were patched before snow flew.
More than $1 million worth of upgrades are just the beginning, Racanelli said. There is much more that needs to be done to attract potential tenants, so they’ve enlisted the services of a Hibbing-based architect to draw up redevelopment plans for spaces they’d like to see ranging from a few thousand square feet up to 80,000. Their hope is to eventually house a new sports facility and open office spaces. Another idea on their wishlist?
“Our dream is to have a full-fledged supermarket as a tenant somewhere on our property, so we’re hopeful negotiations will keep stirring and something will come in the future,” Racanelli said.
They’re currently working with a broker “getting a lot of buzz going,” and “having conversations” with several potential future tenants, she added. As for who, they can’t disclose those publicly as of yet.
Today, the Hibbing Area Chamber of Commerce is supporting them in all of their endeavors.
Chamber President Vicki Hagberg told the HDT in an email last week that while the Irongate has long been a Chamber member, their engagement with the Chamber has significantly increased since Cohen took over as sole owner. “It’s great to see investments being made at the Irongate property that will help make the building more desirable for both tenants and the overall community,” Hagberg wrote.
She continued, “What worked well for our community 30 years ago might not be the best fit for today. There is a need for a variety of leased spaces in Hibbing from retail, professional services and light industrial, so we’re looking forward to seeing the Irongate property utilized more with the new vision and investments being made into the property. “
The Hibbing VA Clinic, JOANN Fabrics and Crafts, Angel Nails, Be You Boutique and Party Express remain tenants of the Irongate. In recent months, there has been one notable departure: the North Star Church. For seven years they were located in the former K-Mart space, but moved out in October.
Chris Champion, lead pastor, told the HDT that the decision to relocate services to Victory Christian Academy off 39th St. E. in Hibbing was made after they were told that rent would increase due to property upgrades. Despite the outcome, Champion, who grew up here, said they were given months notice, and he’s happy to see the changes that have already happened at the former mall.
“I’m a millennial that believes in capitalism,” Champion, 29, said. “I believe in a free market. We have the greatest country in the world and I want to see Hibbing take off, and I want to see that space fill up.”
In addition to Cohen’s investments thus far, Racanelli said they will install more lighting for visibility from the highway, landscape the front and resume work on the parking lot when the snow is gone. Their team is also working with the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board to secure additional funding for future improvements.
However, their plans don’t stop there. They hope to invite small businesses to open up shop on the front parcels located between the Irongate parking lot and Highway 169. Anything that could potentially bring in new business is up for discussion. “We also have a full-time property manager and a maintenance team that could benefit potential tenants,” Racanelli said.
Anyone interested in space at the Irongate is encouraged to contact their local on-site manager, Felecia Putney at 218-262-4937. Putney will connect interested parties with their broker.
“We are hoping to attract new tenants,” Racanelli said. “We have a lot of projects under our belts.”