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Downtown without Younkers


In business, executives are schooled to look at problems as opportunity. In that context, Des Moines leaders were handed an enormous opportunity with the recent announcement that Saks Inc. plans to close the downtown Younkers department store in August.

Though hardly a surprise after Saks moved its corporate operations from downtown in 2002 and, earlier this year, the elegant Younkers Tea Room stopped taking bookings after August, the announcement still came with the usual amount of hand-wringing. Downtown without “The Big Store?” The “Electric Stairs” stopped permanently on their track? No more elaborate window displays signaling the beginning of the holiday shopping season? Indeed, it is difficult to picture downtown without the grande dame of Des Moines retail, opened at Seventh and Walnut streets by brothers Samuel and Herman Younker in 1899.

When the store closes, Des Moines will join the ranks of other metropolitan cities coping with the exodus of retail anchors from their downtowns. Des Moines was perhaps behind the trend, holding on to its last department store long after similar retail businesses were shuttered in other metropolitan markets.

The timing of the announcement could have been much worse. Downtown Des Moines is experiencing a renaissance with the development of hundreds of units of housing that will potentially make retail businesses more profitable. Saks hasn’t yet disclosed its plans for the Younkers building, which it purchased last month for $5.2 million, but the potential availability of 230,000 square feet of prime retail space is filled with exciting possibilities.

As tempting as it may be to convert the space for office or housing uses, we hope the building will remain dedicated to retail uses. The possibilities are infinite, from chic boutiques to businesses like a bookstore or health club that would make downtown more livable, especially for young people who may not have been attracted by Younkers’ merchandising approach.

Of course, we’ll miss Younkers, just as we miss other relics of a bygone era of booming core cities. However, with the right mix of retail businesses and entertainment venues filling the building, downtown Des Moines could be stronger without Younkers than it is with it. It’s a matter of perception and whether the store’s imminent closing is viewed as a setback or a chance to create something better.

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