YANKTON, S.D. (KELO) – It’s been three years since COVID-19 shocked the world, taking it’s toll on people and businesses alike. And some businesses weren’t able to bounce back.

But one businessman in Yankton is working hard to bring back a city staple that closed it’s doors three years ago.

The Yankton Mall has sat almost completely empty since 2020.

“We never anticipated that. The only problem that had been three years ago was businesses kind of coming and going. But nothing like what happened when COVID hit. That just ended it right then,” Doug Sall said.

Doug Sall works at the Carpenter’s Shop, a Christian bookstore owned by his wife. He says once the pandemic hit, the previous owners of the mall closed the main front doors and never unlocked them again. The only reason this store survived was because they decided to move to a spot in the mall with its own outdoor entrance.

“But in the meantime, the few remaining stores, businesses that had been here all left,” Sall said. “With the exception of the sporting goods store on the north end and a tavern over in the corner on the southwest side. We were the only people here. And it remained that way for over three years.”

But now the mall is in its comeback era thanks to Matt Evans.

“I think that I kind of have a savior complex, a little bit. So I really like to rescue things and help the community or whatever it takes,” Evans said.

Evans began the process of buying the 260,000 square-foot mall a year ago.

“I fought hard for it. We had a lot of dead ends, a lot of bumps and curves, basically. I just kept fighting for it,” Evans said.

In June of this year, he could finally call himself the owner of the mall — now renamed to Event Central. And Evans hit the ground running to bring the space back to life. The first step? Re-opening the movie theater.

“I think it was like three weeks we did the entire remodel, all new systems, everything in the movie theater and we’re up and running,” Evans said.

Cinema Magic welcomed in a line of people to watch the latest movie releases on July 28th.

“There’s no reason Yankton can’t have a theater. There’s way smaller towns that have theaters so I felt it was a necessity to get this here first. And then we’ll just keep on going,” Evans said.

The next project is opening up a restaurant beloved to Yankton residents and beyond — Jo Dean’s. Evans bought the name and recipes of the popular steakhouse.

“It’s going to take awhile to rebuild the kitchen and everything else, but Jo Dean’s will soon be in the mall,” Evans said.

The movie theater, Jo Dean’s and a future daycare center are all part of phase one of the mall project.

Phase two will be the other end of the mall. Evans says there’s already interest from businesses wanting a spot in there.

“All those people that have their business that they either want to grow it or even start it, this is the chance. To have a discounted rent rate and we can just keep it going,” Evans said.

Evans hopes future businesses can work together to create a community in the mall.

“For instance, we have a pizza place that wants to come in here. If the pizza place can help the play care or play day have pizza parties for birthday parties and stuff, those businesses will work together,” Evans said. “If we can get away from the mall mentality of ten clothing stores in one place fighting over the same customers and have businesses that help each other within one building, I believe that’s how we’re going to be successful.”

Three years ago, Evans never imagined he’d be fighting to bring the mall back better for the city he loves.

“I get goosebumps multiple times a day from this happening. I feel like I’m still dreaming, like how am I here? Three years ago I was still working at my dad’s shop and now I’m here,” Evans said. “It’s great. It’s great for me, it feels great, it’s great for Yankton and I think we just keep going. Keep building the dream.”

Evans says he couldn’t have made this dream a reality without the support of his wife Amber and kids Eli and Ivy.