In the small town of the Columbia Mall, Rusty Strodtman is the mayor. “I do a little bit of everything,” he says. “The mayor gets to work on the budget, listen to their citizens, maybe do some ribbon cuttings and things of that nature. It’s pretty fun.” Of course, the citizens Strodtman caters to include retailers, store workers and customers.
Upholding his official title of senior general manager of the Columbia Mall, Strodtman makes sure he takes good care of everyone. Some days he’ll walk around the mall and talk to retailers to see how they’re doing. Occasionally, he’ll see people he knows from outside the mall as they make a quick stop in his neck of the woods. And every once in a while, he’ll even do some window-shopping. “You see a lot of people come through the mall, so it’s a very fun atmosphere,” he says. “People like to shop, and you just want to make sure they enjoy themselves.”
How to sell Columbia
Growing up on a farm in central Missouri, Strodtman felt it was time to leave the area after graduating from high school. During his adventures around the country, he gained experience doing leasing and construction with the Forum Development Group. He also became involved with the General Growth Co., which owns nearly 150 malls across the United States. Yet, after spending 20 years outside central Missouri, he felt a change of heart. “Once you’ve done your thing and seen other parts of the United States, home is pretty special,” he says. In fact, there’s no place like it, which is why Strodtman brought his entire family back to Missouri and ran for mayor at the Columbia Mall.
Typically, it takes Strodtman two to three years to entice retailers into the Columbia Mall. Because Columbia is not the largest market in the state, retailers plant stores in other Missouri locations first. St. Louis and Kansas City draw the most attention, and then it’s Strodtman’s duty to lure them to his town. “We’re salesmen, and we get to sell Columbia, Mo.,” he says. It’s evident from his demeanor that he isn’t simply selling commercial real estate; he just loves his town.
“Why Columbia?” he asks with a smile. “The college students, the demographics, the central location in the state, the Highway 70/63 corridor. There are just so many positives about Columbia that it’s not very hard to sell.”
Surviving the recession, seeing the future
Those who originally erected the Columbia Mall building in 1985 must have shared Strodtman’s sentiments. The fact that this small-town mall survived a national recession proves they were right. Today, the mall carries all of the same department stores that it housed in the ’80s. Other aspects have been added since then, including the food court carousel and other large stores such as MC Sports. Barnes & Noble was originally a movie theater. Now, a variety of nationally owned stores co-exist with mom-and-pop shops inside the Columbia Mall. Yet, Strodtman confirms that even though stores and styles might have shifted over the years, the actual footprint of the mall is identical to its original layout. And it’s not going anywhere any time soon. “In December 2012, we hit our highest average sales volume for this mall in the mall’s history,” he says. “So the mall is doing well financially.”
Perhaps the success of the Columbia Mall can be attributed to its mayor’s charisma and passion. Maybe it’s his connection with the General Growth Co., which allows him to assess what is working for other malls around the nation. Or maybe it’s ambition and forward thinking that continually make the mall better. “We’re always trying to bring something new to keep it fresh and exciting,” Strodtman says. “We challenge ourselves to not be status quo. We keep trying to push ourselves.”
So what’s in store for the citizens of the Columbia Mall in the next couple of years? “I would probably say in the next couple of years, you’ll see some changes or some additions in our restaurant offerings,” Strodtman says. “I am hoping in the next three to four years you’ll see more sit-down-style restaurants.”