MUSKEGON — The end was literally the beginning for Rich Pangratz.
In the waning months as general manager of a Milwaukee mall that was being closed by its new owner, Pangratz began to look for work. When a potential employer told him of a new mall it was building in West Michigan, he decided to take a look.
He and his wife liked what they saw: a midwestern community at the dawn of a rebirth, and a professional opportunity to guide the opening of a new mall.
Just four weeks after overseeing the closure of the Capitol Court Shopping Center in Milwaukee, Pangratz was in Muskegon, working out of a construction trailer as he began planning for the August opening of The Lakes Mall. He began his position as the mall’s general manager March 1.
The Lakes Mall, being built on land along Sternberg Road just east of U.S. 31 in Fruitport Township, is scheduled to open Aug. 15.
“I’ve never done an opening before,” said Pangratz, a 20-year veteran of the retail business. “It’ll be a heck of a challenge and I think it’ll be a lot of fun and I’ll get a lot experience out of it.”
A Miami, Fla., native, Pangratz began his retail career after a stint in the military and working as a firefighter.
Following his honorable discharge form the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a radar operator and was trained in crash rescue, Pangratz took a job in 1974 as a civilian firefighter and paramedic at the former Homestead Air Force Base, south of Miami. Six years later, planning to relocate to the Midwest, he sought a transfer to a reserve unit at Mitchell Field in Milwaukee.
But an executive order by President Reagan in early 1981 freezing military transfers and new civilian hires nixed those plans. That led Pangratz to take a position in Milwaukee with a real estate company, Spring & Boe Asset Management, which ran commercial properties in the area. He oversaw the maintenance of one of the firm’s malls.
At the same time, Pangratz began learning the retail trade and training to move up in the company. He eventually became a property manager for shopping centers, strip malls and office buildings.
After seeing his plans to work as a firefighter dashed, and with Wisconsin law requiring that he live in the state for a year before he could apply for work with a civilian fire department, Pangratz’s career change to retailing came out of necessity, he said.
“I had to make a choice. I said, ‘Well, I’m up here now.’ I kind of just started nosing around,” he said. “It just kind of ballooned from there.”
In growing into a new career, Pangratz also grew to enjoy retailing, where every day is different. One day you’re working with large national retail chains, while the next you’re helping the owners of a small “mom and pop” store or spending time meeting shoppers, he said. He especially enjoys the atmosphere of a mall during the Christmas holiday season.
“It’s exciting,” he said.
When the Spring & Boe partnership dissolved in 1991 and sold its portfolio, Pangratz joined SAFECO Properties/Winmar Company out of Seattle, Wash., as general manager of Milwaukee’s Capitol Court Shopping Center, an 850,000-square-foot regional mall.
In 1998, SAFECO decided to dissolve its real estate portfolio. Capitol Court was sold on Jan. 31, 2001, to a local developer who decided to close the mall and redevelop the site into a retail power center, with “big box” national chain stores.
Pangratz had known for months that the end was coming and decided to stay so he could close out the mall. During the latter half of 2000, as he began seeking new employment. He eventually began talking to CBL Properties & Associates of Chattanooga, Tenn., one of the largest developers and operators of shopping centers and malls in the U.S., with more than 150 properties in 26 states nationwide.
They initially talked about a position running a mall in Asheville, N.C. But Pangratz and his wife, Mary, wanted to stay in the Midwest. He soon got that opportunity.
“They said, ‘By the way, we’re building a mall in Muskegon, Michigan.’ I said, ‘That sounds interesting, opening up a mall from scratch,’” Pangratz said.
That interest led him and Mary to visit the area over the winter.
“We thought, ‘Looks good. Let’s do it,’” Pangratz said.
As the mall continues to take shape, Pangratz spends much of his time working with retailers, planning the August grand opening and learning about the community.