National retail distress is emptying rural regional malls such as in Ottumwa. Rodney White,

OTTUMWA, Iowa — This city’s Target store is gone.

So is Kmart, MC Sports, JCPenney, Vanity and soon Herberger’s, a department store.

“The mall is pretty sad,” says Amanda Cain, a teacher and mother. “Once Herberger’s closes, we’ll have no anchors.”

About two-thirds of Ottumwa’s Quincy Place Mall will be empty with Herberger’s loss.

Bon-Ton Stores, of which Herberger’s was a part; Toys R Us; MC Sports and others are bankrupt. JCPenney, Kmart and other department stores are closing unprofitable stores in their struggle to survive against growing online competition.

National retail distress is emptying rural regional malls, experts say. But long-term economic deterioration is driving their inability to bounce back: Fewer jobs and fewer people mean less money spent on TVs, couches and clothes.

Ottumwa and most other small Iowa cities have failed to recover the jobs lost in the recession, said David Swenson, an Iowa State University economist.

Wapello County, where Ottumwa is the biggest city, with 24,450 people, had 3% fewer jobs last year than in 2008. Even with mostly steady employment over the past two years, the city’s retail sales have tumbled 6.8%.

Buying power follows workers, who are moving to metro areas for jobs.

“They’re going where the economies are stronger and they can make more money,” Swenson said. “The only alternative left in many of these rural areas is Walmart.”

Cain, who’s not a Walmart fan, does most of her shopping at Kohl’s in Ottumwa.

“Whenever we can, we’ll do an out-of-town shopping trip, spend a Saturday and do our shopping in Des Moines. … We make it a fun outing,” Cain said, whose family hits Jordan Creek and Valley West malls, TJ Maxx and other Des Moines-area stores she wishes were closer.

“It would be nice just to run to the mall whenever we want and find the stores we like,” she said.

A mall shakeout is coming

Many small urban centers are suffering, said Liesl Eathington, an ISU economist.

Fort Dodge, Mason City, Clinton, Spencer and Keokuk are among small Iowa cities that posted annual retail sales losses, based on Iowa State University’s inflation-adjusted data.

“It’s too soon to say the mall is dead,” Eathington said. “But we may see a shakeout when there are fewer and fewer of them.”

Swenson said retail…