The newly renovated Mission Trace Shopping Center was once considered blighted and was a candidate for urban renewal.
The newly renovated Mission Trace Shopping Center was once considered blighted and was a candidate for urban renewal.

Academy Boulevard got a welcome boost in the 1980s when the Mission Trace Shopping Center opened.

For the first 15 years or so, the 289,000-square-foot retail center, featuring the area’s first bank, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dos Hombres Restaurant and busy King Soopers, attracted thousands of shoppers daily.

It soon became the place to shop in south Colorado Springs.

Then, in 2003, the supermarket, which had been the center’s anchor, moved to a competing center across the street. Shopper traffic immediately declined. The center’s smaller mom-and-pops, ethnic restaurants and services like dry cleaners and shoe repair businesses saw customers move on to trendier or busier centers to the north and east.

The situation wasn’t helped by deteriorating conditions along the entire Academy Boulevard corridor. Mission Trace was left behind, forgotten. Vacancies rose to more than 70 percent and, in 2006, the property fell into foreclosure.

The situation was so bad that in 2009 Mayor Lionel Rivera identified the center as a target for the city’s Academy Boulevard redevelopment efforts. The city’s planning department today is in the midst of a Great Streets Academy Boulevard transportation study designed to identify the need for federal funding to revitalize the area.

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But Mission Trace Shopping Center’s owners didn’t have time to wait.

Over the past two years, they’ve spruced up the place and filled it with tenants. Shoppers are once again returning to Mission Trace, offering one of the few examples of a retail turnaround at a time when the economy is only beginning to recover.

The center’s rebirth has been led Matt Craddock of Craddock Commercial Real Estate.

Craddock acquired a note on 180,000 square feet of the center’s real estate in 2006 for $4 million.

He gave the retail hub a million-dollar facelift in 2008 and 2009. Today it is home to 32 businesses and nonprofit organizations.

Occupancy is better than 95 percent.

Regulars frequent its dozen or so bars and restaurants, use its pack-and-ship store or chiropractic services, shop its ethnic boutiques or do their banking at the center’s Key Bank branch.

Hundreds of cars fill parking spaces near the Gloria de Scion and All Peoples Praise Center each Sunday — or drop off students at the Hope Online K-12 charter school.

The Alternative Source, an auto accessory, stereo and electronics store that moved its operation to another shopping center just a mile away, has returned.

One of Craddock’s proudest achievements was working with the city to sign USA Discounters — a large national military-focused retail chain — to a 50,000-square-foot lease in 2009.

“We were in competition with at least four other sites,” he said.

So far the store’s business is not only meeting, but is exceeding projections, said store manager Homer Haley.

“We’re happy to be near our best customers,” he said of the store’s growing Fort Carson population.

Re-inventing and revitalizing

Craddock attributes the center’s transformation to finding the market’s sweet spot and to collaborative partners.

Mission Trace’s rents are among the most affordable in town.

Two spaces currently advertised on the company’s website quote lease rates of $6 to $7 per square foot. That’s well under the $10.63-per-square-foot average rent quoted by Turner Commercial Real Estate for comparable space in southeast Colorado Springs.

Another key factor in the center’s progress came right before Craddock purchased the property in 2006.

At that time Key Bank Community Development banker Andrew Romero had just been assigned the job of finding a developer to work with on redeveloping the struggling shopping center. At that point, the center was 50 percent vacant.

Key Bank branch manager Lisa Baird mentioned that the Craddocks were interested in buying the property to Romero.

Five years later, not only has Key Bank financed much of the $1 million or more needed to remodel the center’s façades and landscaping, but has partnered with Craddock on other projects.

“I think our partnership gave Matt confidence that he had a lender who would stay with him. Five years later and look what he’s been able to accomplish,” Romero said.

“Their mission fit with ours. It’s worked out very well.”

Tenant mix thrives on diverse stores, shoppers

But even a well-financed retail center won’t make it without successful tenants.

While Mission Trace has not yet attracted key “junior anchors” — 5,000- to- 20,000-square-foot national retail operators like Ross, Dick’s Sporting Goods or Payless Shoes — it is home to some locally owned shops that are doing alright.

2 Dog Tavern owner Bonnie Allen opened her business in 2007, just as the recession took hold.

Allen credits Craddock with providing the support necessary for her start-up neighborhood bar to grow.

“He’s worked with us on the rent and on fixing this place up. Another tenant referred us. He’s been great,” she said.

Two doors down, “It’s All Good Soul Food” is preparing to open Oct. 1. The café, which wil serve collard greens, fried catfish, ribs, black-eyed peas and other Southern favorites, had closed a couple of years before. Owners Gregory and Cheryl Barnes moved on, starting a church, Spoken Word International Ministries, nearby.

The re-opening of the soul food restaurant is designed to generate cash flow, not only for the entrepreneurs but for their ministry.

Craddock said he has used “every bit of creativity I have” to come up with ways to fill Mission Trace.

One of his brainstorms was to create a “church mall.” Not only have three churches so far leased space in a once-vacant 50,000-square-foot building, but all seem to be thriving.

That’s where Gloria de Scion, a Spanish-speaking ministry and the All Peoples Praise Center are located. Gloria de Scion serves as a food bank on Mondays, providing food boxes for up to 50 families a week and counts a congregation of about 400.

On another side of the center, Ace Morrison is the general manager of Creative Design of New York. The boutique shop carries designer handbags and shoes, athletic shoes, artwork and portraits of well-known performers and sells a few electronics and CDs. In the back of the store is a single-chair barber shop.

Fort Carson soldier Tony Periman stopped by for a haircut last week.

“A lot of guys from Fort Carson come here. Some shop for their girlfriends. It’s a cool place,” he said.

Where from here

While it might be tempting to fill up the center’s remaining spaces with tattoo parlors and a marijuana dispensary, Craddock’s not interested.

“I’ve got to look out for my tenants and they want a safe, family-friendly environment,” he said.

There’s one big challenge remaining for him: an empty space amounting to 52,000 square feet once occupied by that King Soopers.

The building’s Denver-based owner also owns a competing shopping center across the street that attracted Kings Soopers away.

“The (owner) just hasn’t been motivated,” Craddock said. “I’ve tried to talk to him, but got nowhere — but I’ve heard he’s starting to get serious about selling.”

Craddock believes that the empty building would make an ideal bowling alley or sporting goods store.

That’s now a more realistic hope than it would have been five years ago.

80916 demographics

Population: 60,000-64,000 residents

Average 2008 household income: $49,328

Average 2008 household income citywide: $56, 993

Households below the poverty level: 15.6 percent

Colorado households below the poverty level: 11.4 percent

Median 2008 house or condo value: $158,375

Median 2008 house or condo value statewide:  $242,000

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Census Bureau,