Almost 30 years ago, Sioux Center’s city leaders proposed and the community overwhelmingly supported the construction of the Centre Mall. The city’s vision included encouraging a vital and active downtown business district, attracting new stores to the community and generating increased retail sales through improved selection and value.

As the facility neared completion, it was discovered that no provision had been made in the budget for amenities like food court seating, benches, trash cans and planters. Having been so laser-focused on getting the building ready for stores, we realized we weren’t yet ready for customers!

Fortunately, contingency funds were available to purchase the amenities we needed. Almost immediately, we began to see an unexpected benefit the mall was providing to the community – not just a place to shop, but also a gathering place. A place to meet and greet your friends and neighbors, get together with family, have an informal business meeting or bible study or just hang out.

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg has coined these gatherings as “third places.” Third places “host the regular, voluntary, informal and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.” Oldenburg’s third place research is based around the primary social spaces that people occupy: home and work being first and second. While work is a structured and formal social experience and home is a private experience, third places are more relaxed environments in which people feel comfortable and to which they return time and again to socialize, to relax, and to enjoy the company of those around them.

Good third places are abuzz with conversation and yield spontaneous relationships between people from different social and economic backgrounds — essential for building strong communities, creating empathy between people and maintaining a view of oneself as part of something larger. In other words, they’re a community’s living room.

Centre Mall is a place where all of Sioux Center is on display every day in its beautiful diversity; bringing together young people and adults of all ethnicities and economic circumstances in a clean, fun and comfortable environment. Centre Mall provides a convenient place for travelers to take a break; a place for open political discussions; a designated area for friends to meet or for students or groups who have similar interests to gather. A place to experience community.

The future of Centre Mall depends largely on continuing to be a fun, comfortable and safe place to browse, linger, lounge, relax, read, eat, laugh, play, talk, listen or just watch the world go by. As the availability of online shopping and fast home delivery diminishes the local retailer’s ability to compete in terms of price and selection, the importance of how our guests perceive their shopping experience grows. As trends and technologies come and go, it will be the positive and rewarding experiences that people will remember and want to return to.

It is no secret that today’s retail environment is challenging. The increasing use of online shopping and the bankruptcies of major chains, department stores and malls have been well publicized. But this current economic reality also represents an opportunity for us to re-evaluate the role and purpose of the Centre Mall in Sioux Center, to develop ideas and strategies leading to a preferred future for the mall and surrounding downtown area.

This preferred future will embrace the original vision of a vital downtown, new stores and increased selection and value, all wrapped around the central objective of providing a positive and enriching “third place” experience for our residents and visitors.

Dean Gabhart and his wife Laurie live in Sioux Center. Dean has been the Centre Mall coordinator for Sioux Center since before the mall opened in 1991. He can be reached at deang@siouxcenter.org.