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City Plaza, shown in this late 2015 photo, is located in former Wal-Mart building in Devils Lake with a dozen businesses, including Dunn Brothers coffee, Charras and Tequila, Ace Hardware and ATA Martial Arts. FILE PHOTO (Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald)

Devils Lake's City Plaza fills up quickly, offers unique spin on shopping

DEVILS LAKE — When Reg and Eileen Herman started recruiting businesses to fill the former Wal-Mart building in Devils Lake, they wanted to turn the 72,000-square-foot space into more than a shopping center.

Three years after the building was purchased by a group of investors, the City Plaza at 210 U.S. Highway 2 has been occupied by a dozen tenants, with only 9,000 square feet left to fill. The two partners in the project say the dream to bring a mix of shopping, services and local hangouts has moved quicker than expected.

Not that they are complaining. Their plan was to give Devils Lake something special that would bring more people into town, Eileen said.

"I think Devils Lake is a really great town," Reg said. "Our goal is to make the Devils Lake economy a little better."

Filling up

Built in 1996, the building that now is known as the city plaza housed Wal-Mart before the retail giant moved into its 120,000-square-foot supercenter at 1424 U.S. Highway 2 E., leaving the building that is about 1½ miles to the west empty for seven years.

The the City Plaza group came in to purchase the building in March 2015 for $5 million, with interest in turning it into an events center.

But the Hermans and investors with local roots wanted to help advance Devils Lake as a regional hub instead of watching the Wal-Mart building turn to nothing.

"When we had traveled, we had seen a lot of these big box stores empty across the United States—grass growing in the cracks of the pavement and weeds, and it just looked pathetic. It made the cities look sick," Reg said. "There has to be something better than this here.

The purchase came at an interesting time, Reg said. The dike project had wrapped up and the city began to recover from economic loss during the flood years.

As the mid-2010s rolled around, businesses started to see opportunity in the city.

"People finally said we aren't a construction town anymore," he said. "From 2014 to 2016, we had a tremendous amount of activity."

In the fall of 2015, the first business, ATA Martial Arts, opened its doors. The plaza filled up shortly after that. Eileen moved quickly to recruit anchor tenants, including a hardware store. Within hours of applying, three companies got back to her.

The plaza went with Ace Hardware, which opened in February 2016.

Another big addition to the plaza was an authentic Mexican restaurant. With an entrance shaped like a southwestern barn and the interior in a Mexican theme, Charras and Tequila opened in October, attracting customers to the eatery.

Other businesses to sign on for space at the plaza include grocer Green Valley Foods, Dunn Brothers Coffee, beauty and barber shop Lock's 'N Beards, Lake Region Fitness, Plaza Nutrition, Reign Realty, a massage therapy business, a physical therapist and counseling services.

"I don't know why it happened so quick," he said.

Vision for shopping

The Hermans wanted each store to have a unique look to it compared with the other stores, almost as if to give patrons a sense they were in a different city.

For example, they wanted the entrance of the Mexican restaurant to look like a place from the south, like New Orleans or the Southwest. Dunn Brothers should feel like people are having a cup of coffee in New York City or Vancouver, B.C.

"The fitness center has an urban look," Reg said. "When you are walking down a mall or an airport and you see something cool, you tend to walk in it."

Another space that has not been filled is beginning to look like a lake cabin. The Hermans hope to attract a small-town business that would sell quality clothing to various types of clients.

The plaza has hosted boat and vendor shows, and it has become a local hangout of sorts. There also is space for meetings and special events, like birthday parties.

Reg said a modern look, variety stores and a location along Highway 2 have helped the plaza succeed, but it's the businesses that trusted the City Plaza group, shoppers and hard work were key.

There also is a spin-off effect where more businesses could move into the area surrounding the mall.

"I think once something happens, I think it gives people confidence that they can do something," he said.

Pullout: Coming Monday: With the vote for a $8.9 million fine arts center in Devils Lake this Tuesday, students and faculty are boasting the facility as an investment in the future.