Sycamore Mall expects new business


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After an initial fall 2011 announcement signaled a loss of its main anchor store, the future of an aging East Side shopping mall became very much unclear.

But roughly two years later, in light of recent news of an all-out redesign and renovation to Iowa City’s Sycamore Mall, several city officials, business owners, and community members are optimistic about what’s to come.

And the emergence of a new $1 million Massachusetts Institute of Technology “Fab Lab” — a first for the state of Iowa —they say, has now only reiterated those thoughts.

The now national concept, first developed in 2007, will introduce a community center to occupy the former 40,000 square foot Von Maur space.

Additional locations are currently in operation in a number of U.S. states, including but not included to Rhode Island, Wisconsin, North Carolina and New York.

Locally, the space will take the name of The STEAM Room Fab Lab.

The program is based off of the STEM initiative for education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Kirk Cheyney, Fab Lab Director of Operations, said the Fab Lab though, will be based off of a STEAM Room initiative, which adds Art into the current STEM initiative.

The lab will include almost $300,000 worth of equipment with the total cost of the project over $1 million, which has come from private and corporate donors. Once up and running, monthly memberships will support the space with the rest of the money going back into the community. Memberships will be under $100 and are going to be as low cost as possible.

Cheyney said the primary goal of the local project is to foster education and community. There are other tech shops similar to Fab Labs in nature, he said, but having the non-profit aspect of the project adds further value to the space.

Some of the equipment will include Computer Numerical Control machines, 3D printing, welding, plastics, woodwork, metal work, circuit board printing, robotics, and other machines and tools to allow people to create almost anything.

Because of the abundance of educational resources in Iowa City, he said he believes the project will be accepted within the community.

“All the engineers, artists, craftsman’s, plastic smiths, so many craft people who don’t have those connections or access (to equipment),” he said. “[It] is a place where it brings together the people and the tools.”

Following the departure of Von Maur from the mall, officials maintained that the hunt for a prominent focus for the newly vacated area became inherent for creating the new renovation plans.

And while mall management company Core Realty Holdings’ Vice President John Arlotti and mall general manager Kerry Sanders did not return calls and emails seeking comment Tuesday night, both referenced a positive retail future for the more than 40-year old mall in a July 11 interview with The Daily Iowan.

“Right now, retailers are doing well, and the retail market is on the upswing, so our timing is very good,” Arlotti said of the then newly-announced Shive-Hattery Architects plan in the interview.
In July, Sanders told the DI that retail has to evolve and Sycamore would grow right along with it.

Cheyney said the site’s goal is to become a school-to-school tie, utilizing tools not currently available at area educational institution’s disposal.

Nancy Quellhorst, the president of Iowa City area Chamber of Commerce supports the plans for Fab Lab primarily because of its educational focus.

“I think it’s an extremely creative use of the space anything that combines education and entertainment will be well received in this community,” Quellhorst said, adding that she sees it as a catalyst for additional educational entities.

Noting the neighboring Kirkwood Community College and nearby South East Junior High, City Councilor Jim Thromgorton, sees the unique location of Sycamore Mall as having an educational advantage for the new venture.

From a business standpoint of surrounding patrons in the mall, increasing the foot traffic will be essential with these new renovation plans.

Following the vacancy of Von Maur from the mall, other business owners in the mall felt the hit.

“With Von Maur leaving, there has been easily more than a 25 percent decrease in traffic,” Greg Delzer, owner of Sycamore’s Defunct Books, said.

Quellhorst also sees the need to increase business in the mall in order for it to uphold its standing within the community.

“Certainly we want the mall to draw a critical mass of people and provide the economic mainstay for east Iowa City in the way that it has in the past,” she said.

Josh Woolums, owner of Hobby Corner, which will be staying in the Sycamore Mall following the renovations, is excited about the new plans that are different from a normal shopping center.

“It’ll be a novelty that will be for sure,” he said, adding that he is looking forward to the potential of robotic creations.

Rebecca Durkee, a UI graduate sociology student said she was impressed with the mall remodel and Fab Lab project.

“That’s great,” she said. “Anything that will increase knowledge is good.”

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