People visit the Three Rivers Mall to shop, catch a movie or work out at the gym. In the near future, they might also visit the mall to register to vote, pay their property taxes or meet with county officials.
Cowlitz County Commissioners Arne Mortensen and Dennis Weber say they’ve discussed moving the county’s administrative offices from the old administration building in downtown Kelso to the Three Rivers Mall, which has ample empty space and parking.
Mortensen has talked with mall management about the idea, which is driven by several factors and problems with the old classical brick-facade building.
One, according to Weber, is that the current county building is unfriendly to people with physical disabilities.
“Accessibility is just really not good at the administration building, and we need to figure out a way to re-purpose that building,” he said.
Weber added that one of the county building’s main parking lots, near the building’s north entrance, requires the visitor to walk down a flight of stairs to reach the offices.
“If you’re disabled, you’re trapped, and it’s just not fair,” he said. “We just see people have to deal with those stairs all the time, and that’s just not right.”
Cowlitz County Auditor Carolyn Fundingsland said she’d support a move to the mall, echoing Weber’s concerns about accessibility. She noted that the county will spend over $100,000 in 2018 to keep the building’s elevator working.
The structure isn’t earthquake-safe either, and Mortensen pointed out that it has other problems as well.
“There was one commissioner meeting where (Purchasing Manager) Matt Hansen got a bucket out, because (rain) was leaking through the roof,” he said. “There are issues.”
According to the Cowlitz County Historical Museum, the administrative building was constructed in two parts: the older portion arose in 1923, and the newer section came into being in 1939.
Fundingsland said the building also has “a lot of security risks.” If county offices moved to the mall, the Auditor’s office and the Elections office, which she oversees, would be on the same floor again.
“I would once again be able to house all my divisions in the same area, and be able to have contact with all staff,” she said. “We would be (more) accessible. I think it’s more secure. That’s why it would be attractive to me and my department.”
The mall could benefit as well, according to Mortensen.
Mortensen pointed out that the Three Rivers Mall has become deserted with time. Sears closed its Kelso location in 2013 and was replaced by the Regal 12-plex movie theater. Macy’s closed last year, and its former anchor location remains empty. Many storefronts inside the mall are vacant, and the food court doesn’t have a single eatery.
“Is there anything we can do about (the mall’s vacancies)?” Mortensen asked. “I’m picturing, if we move the county storefront and administrative stuff over there, it will bring back the food court, and it’ll bring back traffic.”
Having a busier and vibrant all might make Cowlitz County more appealing to outsiders.
“If I am a businessman, from Omaha, Nebraska, and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to expand. I wonder if I should expand in the Longview area,’ “ said Mortensen. “He stops, he sees the Three Rivers Mall, and he goes in there. He spends about a half hour, turns around, gets back in (his) car, goes back to the airport and leaves. And you know why.”
Multiple tenants of the mall interviewed last week liked the idea of county offices moving there.
“The more things that are in the mall … no matter what they are, the better it’s going to be for the people that are here, because there’s going to be more traffic,” said Wendell Hunter, the owner of Old School Collectibles. “More traffic, more chances for sales.”
Alena Crosswhite, the manager of Mythic Escapes, agreed.
“This mall’s sort of dying … but more foot traffic could be of help,” she said. “People go into the city offices all the time, so it would be better for businesses.”
J.C. Penney Manager Matt Blisard seemed ecstatic at the idea of the county offices bringing in more business.
“Any (time) you can get more people in one spot is good for retail,” Blisard said.
Rouse Properties, who owns the Three Rivers Mall, declined to comment.
If county offices move to the mall, what would happen to the old, historic building? Weber suggested that a move to Three Rivers could be temporary while upgrades are made.
“I’d like to see us start off with maybe (staying) in the old Macy’s building for say, five years, while we figure out what to do with the old building,” he said. “Get access, safety and parking.”
Weber also suggested that the building could be sold and converted into condominiums. Mortensen said his choice would be to sell it, possibly to restaurant/hotel chain McMenamins, which is known for re-developing older buildings. (McMenamins, however, is on the cusp of opening its new restaurant and inn at the Port of Kalama.)
Mortensen he’s made “under-the-table inquiries” with prospective purchasers. He’s been told the building might fetch $8 million, he said.
There is a precedent for moving government offices to the mall. The Kelso Public Library moved there from downtown in 2011.
No official decisions have been made about the county’s potential move, and there is no official estimate for how much it would cost to retrofit parts of the mall for county offices.
“These (talks) are all too early,” he said. “If I say too much, people will think a conclusion been drawn, and a conclusion has not been drawn.”
Weber said he believes the old county administrative building will live on even if the county moves.
“I don’t see it going away, it’s not going to be torn down or anything like that. It’s a cool building, it’s classic — but it’s a little difficult to get to.”