One of the major national newspapers (with a paywall, unfortunately) ran an article yesterday on the death of shopping malls. It is undeniable that many malls have struggled with challenges. The major mall near our home when we lived in Cleveland was Randall Park Mall. It has been razed and converted to an Amazon distribution center. When we came to Columbus, City Center Mall in downtown Columbus was the showpiece of the city. Incidents with teen gangs and rising vacancies and the closure of the major local department store anchor led to closure and eventual razing of this mall as well. The area has been converted to upscale downtown apartments and a performance space, which might be a net gain for the city.
Southern Park Mall was the place we went to hang out as teens and on dates. We all flocked to it when it opened in 1970. There was room, with free parking for 6300 cars, unlike downtown stores. At that time, it occupied over 1,100,000 square feet, expanding further when Horne’s was added as a fourth anchor store, joining Penney’s, Strouss’s (with its second floor pavilion style restaurant) and Sears. Both Sears and Penney’s had exterior auto centers. In all, the mall had over 100 stores as well as movie theaters. The mall was built near the location of the historic Southern Park Race Track, hence the name. It was built by the Edward J. DeBartolo Company, whose offices were just down the street.
Some of my Southern Park memories: Standing in line to see The Poseidon Adventure, for which Youngstown native Maureen McGovern sang the theme song (“There’s Got to Be a Morning After”); going to Spencer Gifts for girl friend gifts and posters; using my Higbee’s employee discount at The Loft and at Burrows; visiting the first store I ever went to dedicated to selling books, Walden’s; and in later years, taking my mother-in-law to do her Christmas shopping, which always involved a stop at the Roy Rogers Restaurant, which she loved. Before we were married, my wife worked for a time at J.C. Penney. We still have items in our home she bought there.
Eventually Strouss became Kauffman’s, and finally Macy’s. Horne’s became Dillard’s. In 1997, the DeBartolo Corporation merged with the Simon Property Group, and they invested in $19 million in improvements, including a foodcourt and a seven-screen theater complex. In 2014, the Simon Property Group sold the mall to Washington Prime Group, a spin-off company. In July 2018, Sears closed its store, part of a national closure of stores. Dillard’s announced its closure early in 2019.
No plans have been announced yet for the former Dillard’s space. I learned that the Sears store is being torn down and the space is being converted to what is being called DeBartolo Common, which will include stores making up the new exterior wall of the mall, athletic fields, a green space, and a bandstand intended to make this a community gathering place for Boardman and the great Youngstown community. This reflects a national trend for malls that survive, according to a Forbes article that suggests that younger consumers are more interested in spending their money on experiences rather than material things. According to The Business Journal, among tenants being considered are a fitness facility and an indoor golf facility connected to a restaurant.
It is interesting to see how these things go in cycles. The advent of malls fifty years ago were the sign that the days of downtown shopping were numbered. Now, as malls struggle to address safety issues posed by everything from teen gangs to gun violence, and to compete against online sellers, some are dying and some are reinventing themselves. Southern Park Mall (as well as Eastwood Mall) has so far survived and appears to be reinventing itself. And looking on a store map, I see that Penney’s, where my wife worked, and Spencer’s, where I bought gifts and posters, both live on. I hope that is a good sign for the rest of the mall. To good Black Friday and holiday sales and better days to come!