Dying Mall Becoming Marketplace for Church to Serve Community
Dying Mall Becoming Marketplace for Church to Serve Community

By Mel McGowan

Grand Cities Mall was nearly dead. It’s a typical story in a small city. Online retail has caused local stores to shut down. Even big retailers have left the mall in Grand Forks, North Dakota. But the owner of the mall, Land of Hope—the managing group serving Hope Church in relationship to the Grand Cities Mall—wants to change that story.

Hope Church originally rented a storefront space in the mall in 1996. It was supposed to be only temporary because the church owned seven acres on the south side of town where it planned to construct a building. As more and more retailers left though, Hope felt a calling to stay.

“Gradually . . . we realized that we wanted to be a part of what’s going on here,” said Paul Knight, who serves as lead pastor of Hope Church and sits on the board of Land of Hope. “We believe we can create a community here that will be honorable and exciting for the Greater Grand Forks area.” So, in 2015, Hope Church purchased the mall property.

Knight told the Grand Forks Herald that shoppers today are driven by experience and not just purchasing products. He said the change in the retail market is similar to when Henry Ford invented a car almost anyone could afford, and it put people selling horses out of business. The emergence of online shopping and the dominance of companies like Amazon are the modern-day equivalent.

“This is one of those big, iconic changes for our nation,” Knight said. “We’re redoing how we do business. Stores that offer good service, a human touch . . . those are going to be the kinds of places you go to.”

Developing a Dream Design

Knight and his team, along with city leaders, met with PlainJoe Studios for a design intervention. Together we dreamed about possibilities for the property. We created a master plan for 27 acres of pure experience . . . what we’re calling the Midtown District. In our dream design, we take large amounts of ugly parking spaces and some empty stores and replace them with a community haven of green space that will include a park, trees, and a pond.

I love looking at the before and after pictures because of the stark contrast between big, old-looking blobs of gray and the green, natural beauty where the campus of Hope Church will be developed. The mall will remain, but with a new mix of tenants and possible additions like a coffee shop, restaurants, a city library, and more.

‘Being Where the Action Is’

Paul Knight is my hero. Hope Church could play it safe and keep renting until the mall completely shuts down. Or they could follow the crowd by jumping ship and moving to the property they originally purchased. They could have called us to design a new building just for them. But, instead, they are following God’s prompting to generously serve their community.

Hope’s mission is “to reach people who do not know Jesus and lead them to become his fully devoted followers.” Many churches have a similar mission statement, and yet many such churches reach no one for Christ in their communities. They may have great programs and build up followers in their church, but still miss the point of what we are called to do.

“When we look at the New Testament, Jesus hung out in the marketplace; he went to the center of the city,” Knight said. “We love this idea of being where the action is.”

Hope’s strategy is to reach wide, teach deep, and unleash compassion. And since its beginning in 1979, they’ve done just that. I have no doubt they’ll continue to do so in the new Midtown District.

Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.

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