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Atrium's fate met with optimism

The impending closure of the Atrium Mall isn't necessarily a huge blow to downtown Havre, local business leaders said today.

While having to relocate will be difficult and possibly expensive for the tenants, there is vacant business space to accommodate them, business people said.

Such expressions of optimism greeted news Monday that Atrium owner Don Vaupel, citing a shortage of tenants and rising energy costs, plans to close the Atrium on March 31. The attached building housing Office Equipment Co. and Hanson's Western Drug will remain open.

The Atrium is half full, with about 13 tenants.

Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said the immediate need is going to be finding places for the Atrium businesses to move to.

He said he thinks the spaces can be found.

"My guess is, yes, there probably is enough space to accommodate those businesses," he said.

Realtor Mary Blair said spaces are available in downtown Havre, although it may be difficult for some of the Atrium businesses to quickly find a location.

Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said she has been making a list of the businesses in the Atrium and a list of possible locations for them, and planned to meet with Atrium business owners today to talk about what they could do to keep operating.

"I think as a community we need to help," she said.

The Atrium has been an institution in Havre since it was constructed in the early 1900s to house the local F.A. Buttrey store, part of a chain of department stores founded in Havre. Vaupel took the lead in the 1970s to revitalize the building after Buttrey's closed, Vandeberg said.

"The building truly represents the pulse and heart of the retail business in Havre," she said.

Chuck Wimmer, a banker who is president of the chamber, agreed that the closure of the Atrium is bad news whether the businesses find new spaces or not.

"You hate to see any business close in a downtown area. It's a sad day for Havre," said Wimmer, who also thinks businesses will be able to find new locations.

While some business owners were taking a wait-and-see attitude about the impact on downtown Havre, a Missoula-based economist said the closure likely won't hurt the economy badly because it is a result of economic decline, not a cause of decline.

"Those are symptoms of what is going on. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there in terms of retail and service base," said Paul Polzin, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Over the last decade the population in Havre and the surrounding area has declined, resulting in fewer customers for businesses. Decreasing numbers of Canadian customers have also hurt businesses, he said. Also, more people are traveling to Great Falls to shop.

Those issues, along with more competitive marketing of retail space, probably led to the Atrium's closure, Polzin said.

"Most of those impacts are already felt," he said. "It's not good news, by any means, but it's not the beginning of something new."

Downtown business owner Janine Donoven said she isn't sure what the long-term impact on downtown Havre will be.

"I think that's hard to gauge right out of the chute," she said. "It all depends on how the businesses rebound from the news."

Finding locations for the businesses could be difficult, but they could recover, Donoven said.

"Any time something like this happens, people scramble and try to see how we can come out of it the best," she said.

A vacant Atrium probably will hurt the downtown real estate market, Blair said, but other factors, like the opening of new businesses in Havre, probably will keep it from dragging the market down too badly.

Tuss said something good could come out of the closure. Once it's vacant, people may be interested in buying it and using it for another purpose. He said there are possible uses besides retail and office space.

"I am hopeful something positive will come out of this," he said. "I think anything is possible."


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