In a very different time, it was a very different Imperial Mall when Hastings resident Tom Lauvetz assumed ownership of it in 1982.
Growing to include more than 30 stores, a food court and a steady stream of regular walkers, the mall was a hub of sorts in the community — a venue for events and a gathering place for the community.
That’s the mall Marian Turner remembers as she looks back on her 35 years of employment at the location as secretary and manager.
With the departure of Herberger’s department store on Aug. 29 because of bankruptcy, the once-thriving mall — a landmark on Hastings’ west side since 1970 — has lost its anchor store, leaving just a few scattered tenants to hold the fort in what has become a shrine to what once was.
“It was very busy,” Turner said. “We had some kind of activity almost every weekend. We just always had something going on.
“Tom would say, ‘If a family had been to church and was wondering, ‘What are we going to do with the day?’ They would say ‘Let’s go to the mall!’ And that’s what people did.”
These days, fewer and fewer visitors consider the mall a destination location. Even its once-frequented community room has fallen silent for the most part, thanks in part to its failing heating and air conditioning units. Even the number of walkers has dwindled as fewer and fewer people choose to visit the ghostly halls where laughter and a sense of community have been replaced by echoes of emptiness.
“It’s disheartening,” Turner said. “When Tom first bought it, it was not in as bad of shape as it is now, but he built it up and had it full. It’s tough to see them go away one by one.
“Most of the years I’ve been here I was secretary and would have so much work on my desk! Sometimes I wouldn’t get it all done. Now ...”
Her voice trails off. Her once daily routine is now a three-days-per-week proposition. Her contact with the public has dwindled to almost none. She misses the interaction.
“As employees, we felt important,” she said. “We felt like we had a job to do, and we wanted everything done as perfectly as it could be. And we wanted people when they left here to think that they were glad they came. We always had something in the office for the children, candy or something. Everybody was welcome here.”
Few come around to be welcomed anymore. That silence is mirrored by ownership inside the corporate offices of Namdar Realty Group in New York, where communication is handled on a need-to-know basis.
“We have not heard a thing from our home office,” Turner said. “As far as I know, we’re going to keep on coming in until they tell us different.”
With the Herberger’s departure, mall occupants are even fewer and farther between. Remaining tenants are: Lifehouse Church, Oasis Church, Children’s Museum of Central Nebraska, Napoli’s Italian Restaurant, CrossFit Ground Up, and Pizza Hut (located across the parking lot on the property).
The mood was somber Wednesday as shoppers paid their final visit to Herberger’s, hoping to cash in on last-minute deals before bidding farewell to the popular store that locked its doors for good at 5 p.m.
“Everybody is concerned and upset,” Turner said. “The walkers come into the office and ask, ‘What’s going to happen to us?’ I tell them, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. We’re just going to go day by day until we hear something.’ ”
Mall hours will remain the same for the time being: 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
For Turner, who has become the face of the mall to many customers, these are unsettling times. That she is of retirement age is only somewhat of a comfort as she ponders her future at the once-vibrant shopping center.
“I can afford to retire if they don’t need me anymore,” she said. “We just don’t know. The people in New York don’t contact us a lot. Other owners we’ve had in the past, we’d talk about this and go over that, but when they decide to make a decision, they let us know and that’s just the way it is.
“Of course I’d be happier if we talked every day or once a week and kept up with each other, but we’re used to this. They’ve owned us for a couple years now, so we do what we do. If we need to ask them something, we get hold of them. Otherwise, we make our decisions and move on. And we get along just fine.”