The giant letters spelling SUN RAY on the shopping center sign at the eastern edge of St. Paul have become a local landmark, greeting cars that whiz by on Interstate 94.

These days, that sign is covered in mismatched paint and new letters hang atop the visible outlines of old ones. After large retailer departures, including T.J. Maxx last year, roughly a third of the mall's square footage is available to lease, according to the company's site map.

Neighborhood leaders say the center's shabby appearance is perpetuating the stereotype that St. Paul's East Side is unsafe and neglected. They are calling for the mall's New York-based owners to invest in the aging structure.

"You drive along and you go, 'Why isn't anybody paying attention to this?'" said Paris Dunning, the executive director of the East Side Area Business Association.

Officials at Brixmor, the company that owns Sun Ray, said they are in negotiations with prospective tenants for some of the mall's large empty spaces.

Neighborhood leaders said they still wonder when the mall will live up to its potential.

'Main street for the east side'

Sun Ray has long been an important source of groceries, clothes and other necessities for those who live nearby.

"I always refer to it as the main street for the east side of the East Side," said St. Paul Council Member Jane Prince, a longtime resident who represents the area. "It really is a significant resource."

Local construction company Kraus-Anderson broke ground on the shopping center in 1956 in the wake of the successful Miracle Mile Shopping Center in St. Louis Park, the company said in a Facebook post.

The two don't much resemble each other anymore, Kraus-Anderson's post says: Miracle Mile, home to Hoigaard's, a Schuler Shoes, a tennis and pickleball store, and more, has been updated to fit its setting, while "somewhat threadbare" Sun Ray "has the appearance of a roadside attraction."

Despite its prominent location just off the interstate and next to 3M's headquarters, the mall has faced challenges over the years. Kraus-Anderson declined to comment, but according to the Facebook post, housing development surrounding the shopping center was slow to materialize. In a 1979 Minneapolis Star article, the manager of the strip's J.C. Penney store lamented competing with traditional malls.

Negative perception

Today, Sun Ray is up against a different issue, according to community members: It appears rundown, they say, and that is a detriment to the neighborhood.

"The East Side feels like it doesn't get its share of resources and positive attention ... All you ever hear is 'gunfire on the East Side,' that is, when you watch the news, that's the impression people have of our neighborhood," Dunning said. Sun Ray, he said, seems to display that stereotype in a prominent place.

Betsy Mowry Voss worked from an office at Sun Ray when she was the executive director of the SouthEast Community Organization, headquartered there. Frustrated with crime, loitering and fighting at the strip mall, she said she built a relationship with the mall company's regional manager, who she'd call when she saw issues: a security guard sleeping on the job or a proliferation of trash. She said she helped connect Brixmor with local police to collaborate on safety. She said she also connected store managers and owners with each other to discuss common concerns.

Mowry Voss said another hurdle for the shopping center was COVID-19 and the unrest following George Floyd's murder, when several Sun Ray businesses were burglarized and remained boarded up for a long time due to supply chain issues.

The windows were fixed, but Mowry Voss, now in a different job, says she is still frustrated that problems persist.

"If it was safe and clean there and they had more stores, people would go there," she said. "I have no doubt that the right businesses can thrive."

While crime has been trending down in the area and overall in 2023, St. Paul Police data show at least 100 crimes at or in the immediate vicinity of Sun Ray in the past year. Most are thefts, but they also include drug-related issues, property damage, weapons discharge and other crimes.

St. Paul Police spokesperson Sgt. Mike Ernster said crime levels at Sun Ray are roughly in line with other St. Paul retail spots, but noted retail theft in general has increased.

Brixmor spokesperson Maria Pace said in a statement that ensuring safety is a top priority: "We work with a security consultant to help us establish an effective safety plan and have developed a strong relationship with the St. Paul Police Department, who work with us and conduct regular checks on the center."

Retailer interest

Stefanie Meyer, senior vice president at Mid-America Real Estate - Minnesota, LLC, said the stigma of crime is a challenge for Sun Ray.

Still, she said, demand is high for large retail spaces. And while vacancies of months or a year can feel like a long time to people, on the leasing end, it's normal.

Of 24 shopping centers in Sun Ray's size class in the northeast part of the Twin Cities, the vacancy rate in the second quarter was 15.4% based on square footage, according to data from REDI. Roughly a third of Sun Ray's square footage is available for lease.

Bringing in new tenants could spiff things up, Meyer said: As part of signing a lease, national retailers often negotiate renovations. New tenants can help fund those improvements for property owners.

In a statement, Pace said Brixmor has long-term improvement plans for Sun Ray.

"We are in active negotiations to lease the former T.J. Maxx and Snappy Furniture spaces and look forward to sharing tenant names once leases are finalized," she said.

Hope ahead for Sun Ray?

Mowry Voss said she'll believe the buzz around future plans for Sun Ray when she sees them.

Prince is hopeful. She said Brixmor has been engaged in discussions with her and others recently and she is optimistic that construction of the Gold Line, a bus rapid transit line slated to open in 2025 with a stop at Sun Ray, will help.

She said she's also been talking with Brixmor about plans to redesign the prominent Sun Ray sign.

"It's the first thing you see when you drive into St. Paul from I-94, and so I think we have an opportunity there to do something interesting," Prince said.