Just off exit 31, the once vibrant North Bend Premium Outlet Mall has looked like a shell of its former self over the last few years.
Malls and brick-and-mortar stores across the country have faced challenges even prior to the pandemic, but forced closures and upticks in online shopping made for even more dire conditions. In North Bend, many stores have closed and those still open have struggled with repetitive theft.
But after several tough years, new stores are moving in again, which alongside other improvements, suggest some reasons to be optimistic about the mall’s future.
Just last week, the SnoValley Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting to introduce a large Columbia Outlet into the back corner of the mall. It is one of a few new businesses that have moved in since the pandemic.
Perhaps the cornerstone of new improvements is plans for a five-story, 121-room hotel. Slated to break ground this spring, elected officials and business owners have long seen a large hotel as a missing opportunity to capitalize on visitors.
“This hotel, along with outlet mall improvements already mentioned, will provide out-of-town visitors the ability to spend more time exploring, hiking, shopping and dining in North Bend,” Mayor Rob McFarland wrote in an email.
Those extra visitors in North Bend could translate into greater sales tax revenue for the city, McFarland said, bolstering revenues for services, while decreasing dependence on property taxes.
Kelly Coughlin, CEO of the SnoValley Chamber, called improvements at the mall exciting, noting the mall had “looked really run down” in recent years. She credited mall owners, Simon Property Group, for making improvements.
“They’re investing in it,” she said. “They see how important it is.”
Coughlin also credits Snoqualmie Police for meeting with store workers about theft prevention, which has been a problem for the mall.
Snoqualmie Police Chief Perry Phipps told the North Bend City Council earlier this year that officers spend a “significant amount of time and effort at the outlet mall.”
Nike and Coach, two of the bigger outlets, saw a combined 46 thefts in 2021, according to the data Phipps presented to the council. That is up from 20 combined thefts in 2020. Phipps said he believes those numbers to be an undercount.
“When they notify us, it’s not one of the small thefts,” he said. “It’s someone walking out with a significant amount of loss.”
The mall’s owners, Simon Property, is an Indianapolis-based real estate investment trust and is the largest mall retailer in the country. In Washington, Simon owns malls in Seattle, Tacoma, Tulalip, Kennewick and North Bend.
Multiple requests for comment sent to a local Simon spokesperson for this story were not returned.
While few industries were hit harder than malls during the height of the pandemic, Simon Property saw itself in a better position than other mall owners, with earnings recovering faster than expected in 2021, CNN Business reported.
While there are still long-standing challenges facing malls, Simon reported an increase in both occupancy and rents this month, according to CoStar News, a Washington, D.C.-based analytics company. That comes despite high inflation and economic uncertainty.
“We have yet to see any pullback in opening stores or [lease] renewals,” David Simon, Chairman and CEO, told Wall Street analysts during a call last month. “It’s been a difficult year for e-commerce, and bricks is where the action is.”
‘That connection has been hard to make’
When the North Bend Outlet Mall opened in 1990, it coincided with an effort to reinvent North Bend over a decade after a reroute of Interstate 90 redirected traffic away from downtown.
For decades, I-90 and its precursor, Sunset Highway, ran through the heart of downtown, with businesses reaping the benefit of motorists traveling over the pass. But having a highway run through a downtown core led to safety concerns and traffic jams.
A traffic light was put at the intersection of I-90 and Bendigo Boulevard to slow traffic, and officials even considered elevating the highway to avoid a bypass.
A reroute was inevitable. By the late 1970s, a new section of I-90 was opened that completely bypassed North Bend.
A Seattle Times article from 1991 notes many thought the “Interstate 90 bypass spelled doom for North Bend,” but after a few down years, the article says, development of fast food, service stations and other business — including the outlet mall — at the city’s “front door” along exit 31 help encourage motorists to stop in town again.
Yet improvements at the corporate front door of North Bend have not necessarily translated to improvements for historic, independently-owned shops and restaurants downtown, many of which continue to struggle in wake of the pandemic — particularly with staffing.
Coughlin said the outlet mall generally serves a different clientele than downtown and said she doesn’t think growth there will translate with improvements downtown.
McFarland said that “while a general increase in shoppers at the outlet mall should naturally result in an increase in downtown business shopping, that connection has traditionally been hard to make.”
McFarland said the city is hopeful a new roundabout along Mt. Si Boulevard next to the outlet mall entrance will make accessing the mall easier , and also provide opportunities for signage and visual cues directing people downtown.
Gaila Haas, secretary of the North Bend Downtown Foundation, said it is important to let outsiders know what retail and dining downtown has to offer. While she hasn’t spoken directly with downtown business owners about the outlet mall, she said it’s a positive that could bring in at least some more traffic.
“Being so close in proximity, visitors can very easily shop at both locations, which we hope they do,” she said. “It’s important that our community makes sure people are aware of all North Bend has to offer.”