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by Diane Dietz

On a recent Sunday evening at the Gateway Mall, Marie Gibson bought dish cloths at Sears — and then walked to the next storefront on the north end of the mall for devotions.

She attended the New Beginnings Church of God Metro in the old Mattress Land storefront, prayed and listened to songs about “Falling in Love with Jesus” in the softly lit, twilight blue decor of the former sleep emporium. Then she ate a potluck served from the old sales counter, where thousands of Eugene-Springfield residents once purchased beds.

This fusion of commerce and religion at the shopping mall is a sign of the economic times.

The average vacancy rates nationally at regional malls such as Gateway and Valley River Center are at a 10-year high, according to Reis Inc., a New York-based real estate research firm. And, the amount of vacant mall space has increased for seven consecutive quarters.

As retailers slipped away, lost to the recession, mall owners have become increasingly willing to consider nontraditional tenants such as churches, said Jesse Tron, spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.

The trend is pronounced in the Northwest. In the past year, churches set up shop at the Gateway Mall, the Vancouver Mall and the Three Rivers Mall at Kelso/Longview.

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