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“People are feeling the pinch,” Montana mall manager says

Kai Ryssdal, Richard Cunningham, and Andie Corban Sep 12, 2023
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"People are very good at patronizing, and I appreciate that. But it's not enough," says Alana Ferko of the Butte Plaza Mall's vacancies. "I mean, they're gonna put out the energy to come to the mall, we want it to be worth it." Above, a mall in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“People are feeling the pinch,” Montana mall manager says

Kai Ryssdal, Richard Cunningham, and Andie Corban Sep 12, 2023
Heard on:
"People are very good at patronizing, and I appreciate that. But it's not enough," says Alana Ferko of the Butte Plaza Mall's vacancies. "I mean, they're gonna put out the energy to come to the mall, we want it to be worth it." Above, a mall in Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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The U.S. Census Bureau releases retail sales numbers for August on Thursday. For a closer look at retail sales in Butte, Montana, “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal checked in with Alana Ferko, manager of the Butte Plaza Mall. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: When you’re off duty and you’re not worried about the mall, although I imagine you’re worried about the mall all the time, what’s the economic vibe in Butte? What’s the feeling out there?

Alana Ferko: Well, you know, people are feeling the pinch. They’re definitely feeling the pinch. Rents are up, our inventory for housing is low, but prices are up. The grocery store’s pinching everybody, you know? And it just, it feels real, whereas, you know, the economy before, Butte stayed pretty steady. But now we seem to be trending with what everybody else is doing. And we’re all in the same boat. I guess we’re all on the same river in different boats, I guess is what they say.

Kai Ryssdal: Fair enough. How do you see that reflected in what happens in the mall? Like, are your tenants doing as much business do you think as they used to?

Ferko: Our businesses are actually doing very well. But you know, as there are less options, you become a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

Ryssdal: Sorry, so less options, you mean fewer — you’ve got a higher vacancy rate, right? Fewer stores in the mall?

Ferko: I do unfortunately. I’m losing my oldest mom and pop. They’re retiring. Yeah, so that hurts. There’s a heartache there. So we’re dealing with that reality.

Ryssdal: What is your — I’m sure you know this off the top of your head — what’s your vacancy rate? If you could rent everything tomorrow, how many stores would you be able to rent out?

Ferko: Over 30.

Ryssdal: Wow, that can’t be good. 

Ferko: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s a reality. It’s a very harsh reality.

Ryssdal: Hmm. And then when they come in, what kinds of things are they buying? I mean, it can’t just be all walkers, right? Your famous walking crew that circles around that mall, right? It’s got to be — what are they buying when they come in?

Ferko: Well, our walkers are faithful, yes. I’ve got fine jewelry. I’ve got a phenomenal ladies’ clothing store. We have a Hallmark, JoAnn Fabrics and Crafts. We have some food, and of course, our theater. And what we do have, people are very good at patronizing, and I appreciate that. But it’s not enough. I mean, they’re gonna put out the energy to come to the mall, we want it to be worth it.

Ryssdal: How long have you been doing this?

Ferko: I’ve been here 38 years in February. 

Ryssdal: Wow. Really? 

Ferko: Yep. Yep. 38 years in February.

Ryssdal: None of my business, but how much longer are you gonna do it?

Ferko: Well, I just turned 59. And I’ve always said that I wanted to do 40 years here at the mall. So let’s see how close I get.

Ryssdal: Well, you know, on the theory that your boss is listening, you know, you could sign up for another five years right now.

Ferko: I hope. I would. I would if I could. And if I can, if I can share. In July, there was an NPR listener and his wife stopped in for a visit. They’ve heard us visiting on your show. And Bob and Robin, out of California, were pulling their boat up to Flathead for an annual race. And they stopped in Butte to say hi.

Ryssdal: That makes my day. That makes my day.

Ferko: And it was phenomenal. And he was just such a good man. And Robin was out doing a little shopping, and he and I visited, and it made my day. So I really thank you for that opportunity. I mean, I’ve made friends and built a little support system of your listeners. And I appreciate you for that.

Ryssdal: Well, I appreciate you too. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me all these years.

Ferko: Oh, well, you know what? You’ve been a good visit. 

Ryssdal: Yeah, maybe I’ll get up there one day. What do you think? 

Ferko: Well, maybe I’ll come your way as well.

Ryssdal: Come in the wintertime. Weather is probably better here.

Ferko: You know, right now, our weather is phenomenal. I mean, it’s low 50s when I wake up in the morning. We’re not going past those mid-70s. It’s perfect right now. You know, everybody had a wonky summer. Hopefully, we’ll go into a mild winter.

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