Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, the heyday of the American shopping mall, communities wore their stores like a badge of honor. If you had a Macy’s or a Sears nearby, it was a big attraction. Malls with a Bloomingdale’s were a status symbol.
Events, concerts, local fundraisers, lavish decorations, and of course Santa Claus, were fixtures of those bygone days. It all seemed larger than life. There were teenage mall rats, moms lugging children through women’s outerwear and kids begging to visit the toy store.
During the Cold War, malls even served as a symbol of an American system that provided seemingly unlimited options for every consumer taste, a stark contrast to communist austerity.
Today however, these centers are increasingly an albatross for these same communities. Their demise is just one symptom of the rapidly approaching suburban reckoning.
A recent walk through my local mall was striking. Half of its anchor stores sit empty. Name brand retailers have been supplanted by dollar stores, discounters, and entertainment venues for kids. Three miles away, another mall, only recently converted into an open-air shopping center, is struggling with both anchors now gone.
According to retail analyst Coresight Research, 25 percent of the nation’s 1,200 indoor malls are endangered with half of their anchor department stores expected to shutter by the end of 2021.
If the mall once represented American economic prowess, the debt local governments have accumulated due to overspending has become a symbol of American greed. Decades of reliance on sales and property tax revenue, buttressed by reckless spending on public union healthcare and pensions have taken a toll.
Unfunded liabilities for states and local governments as a result, are estimated at $6 trillion nationwide.
Teachers’ unions are constantly demanding more along with their brethren from local municipalities without any appreciation of residents’ ability to pay. The well is drying up. As local tax ratables like malls are lost, they aren’t being replaced. It means crushing property owners with higher taxes.
Swapping your local shopping mall with an indoor amusement park won’t be sustainable without property tax relief forced by mall owners through costly litigation.
Some have suggested these places could be converted to online shopping warehouses. Turning a once-thriving 100-plus store shopping center into an Amazon fulfillment facility might create a few non-automated jobs, but it won’t produce equivalent sales-tax tax revenue. Online retailers would also ultimately file tax certiorari cases to lower the property assessments. Warehouses and distribution centers are worth less than a shopping mall, with fewer taxable assets.
Converting malls into high-density housing would overburden communities, change their character, and end up costing taxpayers more. Not to mention that creating giant superblock housing smacks of past failed urban renewal efforts.
Efforts by the Biden administration to wrest control over local zoning from municipalities coupled with resettling of the nation’s exploding illegal immigrant population could add significant costs for taxpayers as well. Police shortages and spiking crime that spills over into suburban communities are also on the horizon due to ‘woke’ Leftist attacks on law enforcement. It all adds to the strain.
As if the mall-pocalypse, social services and public safety issues weren’t enough, liberal Democrats and environmentalists are forcing nuclear and natural gas power plants to close across the country. The revenue loss is catastrophic for suburban and rural communities.
Towns can lose up to 70 or 80 percent of their tax revenue from a plant closure, according to the Just Transition Fund, equating to billions nationwide.
There are no easy fixes to this suburban economic meltdown except to demand more government consolidation, more privatization of services, reduction of public payrolls, investments in policing and a reining in of Cadillac union contracts. Without significant reductions in public spending and legacy costs, America’s struggling suburban middle-class risks being squeezed out of existence.
• Tom Basile, host of Newsmax Television’s “America Right Now,” is an author and adjunct professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where he teaches earned media strategy.
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