Sunday, March 17, 2013

If a mall implodes in a small town, is anyone there to hear it--or to care?

I’ve documented evolving retail trends with a keen eye over the past few years.  Regardless of the size of the community, certain similar features have emerged that very well may augur a monumental shift in typology, akin to what transpired in the 1950s and 60s when pedestrian-scaled downtowns lost all their commerce to suburban strip malls and shopping malls catering to the automobile.  This time, the loser is exactly what previously vanquished the downtown: the enclosed shopping mall.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even an entry-level associate at Simon Property Group) to conclude that the era of the mall is over.  Sure, plenty of malls out there are still thriving, but you’d be hard pressed to find one person in this country who cannot think of a mall that is dying, or is already completely dead.  The last mall built in the US was The Mall at Turtle Creek in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 2006.  (Incidentally, it was the second mall to open in the Jonesboro metropolitan area; the older mall, Indian Mall—serving the community since 1967—promptly lost nearly all of its tenants, and quickly died.  Demolition crews took down everything except the still operating Sears in 2012.) While Simon (among others) proposed some malls in the latter part of the decade, all deals collapsed at the onset of the 2008 recession.  Not a single mall has broken ground in seven years.  As recently as the early 1990s, a new mall opened somewhere in the country at least every month—in the 80s, they opened practically every week.   Not only is the mall no longer the dominant hub for retail in large metro areas, it has lost out in the smaller ones as well.

I noticed this shift—already widely documented throughout major cities—in the small metropolitan area of Houma, Louisiana, where pocket neighborhood shopping districts (scattered throughout the city) and the moderately sized Southland Mall were losing out steadily to a throng of big-box stores, all lined up in a row along one of the biggest highways in town.  It seemed like residents of Houma were more than willing to drive greater distances to run the gauntlet of traffic around the superstores, rather than enjoy the convenience of a smaller retail plaza close to home.  Today, those neighborhood strip malls, close to most of the housing, generally share high levels of vacancy and disrepair.  Meanwhile, the Southland Mall clings to life, its occupancy rate at around 60%, well below the level indicative of a healthy commercial landscape.

Now, apparently, the enclosed shopping mall even struggles in municipalities so small that it’s hard to spot the competition.

The above photo depicts the Village Square Mall in Effingham, a community with a little over 12,000 inhabitants in south-central Illinois.  Truth be told, the economic conditions in Effingham are not hugely different from Houma: the regional economy has weathered significant ups and downs over the last few decades, but the population of the municipalities themselves has remained mostly stable.  Both municipalities are regional employment hubs, offering both jobs and retail offerings that serve a broader spatial area than their populations would suggest.  And in both cases, the downtowns show some evidence of revitalization, featuring locally run shops and restaurants in refurbished older buildings.  Effingham has only about one-third of the population of Houma, though, and it boasts one significant advantage: it sits at the convergence of two major thoroughfares, Interstate 70 (connecting St. Louis to Terre Haute, and eventually Indianapolis) and Interstate 57 (connecting Chicago and Champaign eventually toward Memphis).
No doubt this geographic blessing helped the city christen itself as “the Crossroads of Opportunity” and emboldened it to earn the status of a Micropolitan Area by the US Census Bureau, indicating that it attracts commuters well outside its city limits, much the way a metropolitan area does—except that Effingham is not populous enough to classify as a metropolitan area.  However, its centrality and influence span the entirety of Effingham County, which contains a population of 34,000 people—almost identical to the city limits of Houma. 

Thanks to these two interstates, Effingham may be preferred stop for travelers coming lengthwise across Illinois, or for those seeking a pit stop between St. Louis and Indianapolis.  In case the long-distance traveler wasn’t aware of Effingham’s regional significance, the local Cross Foundation helped erect a 198-foot steel cross structure on the outskirts of the city limits, broadly visible from a distance and dedicated just days after the September 11, 2011 attacks.

It is the region’s biggest attraction.  And, surrounding the cross in almost every direction is a none-too-surprising industry.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good photos, but Google Streetview offers a perfectly good representation, both here and a bit further to the north. It should come as no surprise that Effingham boasts a flourishing logistics and trucking industry, no doubt providing the city with tax revenue that explains its well-paved streets, abundant sidewalks and jogging paths, and a well-maintained downtown.

But nowhere along the I-70 or I-57 corridors does a motorist encounter a sign for the Village Square Mall.  Taking another look at it, it’s easy to see why it gets neglected.  The photos at the top of this essay actually showed the good wing of the mall, with a still operational J.C. Penney.  But what about the other wing?  Pivoting to the left, this is what one would see:

And then a bit further to the left:

A pretty bleak scene.  It was never a large mall; it probably only has space for 25 inline tenants.  But that parking lot can sure accommodate a lot of cars.

As for the interior, it offers about what one might expect, given the abundance of cars milling around out front.

I was pretty taken by the tenant at the other long-vacant anchor store (opposite the J.C. Penney):

Obviously I’m giving away the time period that I visited the mall, but I have never seen a haunted house in a mall’s dead space before.  Essentially, haunted houses such as these operate in much the same fashion any other holiday-themed pop-up store, viable only a few weeks before Halloween.  Then, no doubt, the large retail space returned to its usual vacancy.  Here’s the outside view:

A neglected mall such as Village Square would probably suffer serious vandalism if it were in a more high-crime area.  Effingham doesn’t strike me as that sort of place; so instead, the low levels of security and supervision elicit some amiable eccentricity:

I was about halfway through writing this essay when I learned that the well-known site Labelscar had already covered this tiny mall a couple years ago.  Now I’m trying to find ways to distinguish my essay from the one on there.  That site offers a broader array of interior photos, though they’re older, and our primary observation/argument is just about the same: Village Square Mall has endured a steady decline over many years.  The writer for Labelscar claims that a series of non-local property managers showed persistent ineptitude in operating the mall and attracting tenants, and I wouldn’t doubt it.  But the general patterns of development around Effingham are what really stacked the deck against the Village Square Mall.

The map above perfectly demonstrates the problem.  The blue rectangle south of central Effingham shows the general location of the Village Square Mall parcel.  It’s not far from downtown (in Effingham, everything’s close), but notice that the majority of the street grid and development has occurred in a northerly direction.  In addition, the double-barreled interstate I-70/57 wraps around the northern and western city limits—far from the south.  Even if the Village Square Mall were worthy of promotion along the interstate, no amount of signage would make it a convenient destination after getting off the exit ramp.

The map above also reveals what has most likely lead to the mall’s virtual demise.  A purple ellipse on the northwest side of town shows the new retail hub for Effingham, right where busy State Route 33 meets I-57/70 at the exit ramp.  I neglected to photograph the retail at the “Avenue of Mid-America”, but once again Google Streetview comes to the rescue here and a bit to the east, but still in that general location.   You’ve got the usual suspects for shopping and dining: Wal-Mart, Ruby Tuesday, Menards, Arby’s, Starbucks, T.G.I. Friday’s, Cracker Barrel, and a slew of hotels catering to all price ranges.  To the north, sitting amidst an undeveloped field in Effingham’s “frontier”, is a Kohl’s.  Given the persistent success of this supremely well-run company, this land will undoubtedly morph into further big-box retail in the near future, if it hasn’t already (the Google Streetview dates from 2008).

No surprises there.  Much like Houma, the preferred retail hub for Effingham has become even more decentralized than before, lined up along a busy highway that maximizes visibility to the thousands of outsiders who pass through this town on any given day, thanks to those two interstates.  This migration is hardly earth-shattering.  What leaves me scratching my head is the original inspiration for the location of the Village Square Mall.  Why put it to the south?  Was there ever a point when that seemed to be the growing side of town?  If, as Labelscar claims, the mall opened in 1972 through the initiative of a local developer, why didn’t he investigate the construction plans for the interstates?  By the early 1970s, huge portions of these interstates were already complete, and it is likely that the Effington “wraparound” was fully designed, if not already operative.  Did he just have his sights on what most likely has always been the cheaper land?

It’s possible that Village Square would have declined even if it had been front and center along the interstate.  After all, plenty of other malls have sat a stone’s throw from a major highway and croaked in spite of everything; I chronicled the well-known Bannister Mall in Kansas City a few months ago. Not a trace of the Bannister Mall remains, even though I-435 runs immediately to the west.  But Effingham has another peer city in much closer proximity than Houma: Mount Vernon, Illinois, just 70 miles to the south.  I don’t know much about Mount Vernon, except that it, too, sits at the junction of two interstates (I-57 and I-64), has a similar population (15,000), and claims a similarly sized retail hub: the Times Square Mall.  Most online buzz suggests, however, that the Times Square Mall is in much better shape, with three fully operational anchors (Sears, Peebles, J.C. Penney).  It even has a website!  Times Square Mall can claim these victories, despite the fact that Mount Vernon shows evidence of lower economic health than Effingham: it has a higher poverty rate and more notable population loss over the past decade.  But…the Times Square Mall sits just a quarter mile from the busy I-57/64 interstate (probably visible to passers-by), and its on the west side of town—the same direction in which the town’s urbanization seems to be advancing.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Effinghamians go south to Mount Vernon to shop; certainly not the other way around.  Perhaps the Village Square Mall has succumbed to the retail tsunami sweeping America, or it could be something simpler: location, location, location.  The original developer opted for cheap land rather than good land, and though it has taken forty years, eventually the time has come to pay the devil his due.


Ed Bloom said...

You are very much correct that this is a place to stop while traveling. Like most highway "intersections", the services for the traveler are all located near the exits. My family have stopped at the various truck stops, gas stations and convenience stores on our many trips between Fort Leonard Wood and Indianapolis. It is understandable that the focus of growth has moved to the NW corner of town. Great article/essay.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the comment Ed; nice to hear from you. Yeah, it's hard to imagine anything ever happening that will "re-orient" visitor traffic toward the south side of Effingham, where the mall is. If anything, the north and west sides of town are going to be more and more of the focal point. The junction of these two interstates no doubt helps to explain why Effingham's economy is stronger than a lot of other neighboring towns in the area.

Anonymous said...

Very nice job - I had never read a blog before. There was a mall north of Effingham in the 90s, it went completely out of business and was demolished to build the Menards and other stores that are out there.

The land north and west was mainly owned by BB&K which is a corporation that three well-off families created. They would not sell but would only lease land. They own through their corporation or themselves...most of the town along with a handful of the other wealthy families, most of that land north and west.

People from that area don't sell land very often. It is considered family property and the sale of land always was (when I lived there) looked down on.

Ben B. said...

I think that this applies to urban centers also. I remember shopping at City Center in Downtown Columbus, OH where my grandmother lived (she lived in Dublin, OH) as a kid in the late 90's early 2000's stopping in 2002 when Jacobson's closed. I really think if you were younger than 17 (I'm 17 and I barely remember it)you would not know about the fun that City Center really was. Just like my mother remembers Northland, a Columbus inter-urban mall that died in the late 90's and has been forgotten by virtually everyone, I don't think urban malls will be remembered.

AmericanDirt said...

You could be right, Ben...though websites like Labelscar and suggest some people still have real nostalgia for the malls of their childhoods. However, both of those sites aren't that active these days, so maybe the nostalgia isn't so deep-seated. At any rate, City Center in Columbus died and no big shopping center has come around to replace it. Meanwhile, the Short North district has more than its share of upscale shopping these days--most of it local shops rather than national chains. Hopefully it won't die out in twenty years time, getting replaced by something we can't even imagine right now.

Anonymous said...

Great story that seems to be accurate in most of the country probably. I went to the mall in Mt. Vernon many times as a kid in the 70's. Mohr Value was one of the big anchor stores for it at that time?! But, where it was placed in conjunction to the interstate and growth areas somehow has sustained it. On the other side of town a extremely popular and busy shopping center is now empty and dilapidated as is much of that part of town. I live halfway between Washington
D.C. and Richmond, VA now and there is a mall in Fredericksburg right off the interstate. 20 years ago across the street from it they developed a golf course into a business center with everything any major city could offer. The mall across the street was supposed to dry up and wither away but instead they dug in and expanded and added to the mall and refurbished it. It may not be what it was in the 80's but it still has major anchors and at Christmas you can't even get in the parking lot hardly (and it's huge). It's odd how someplaces dry up and others don't but it lies right next to the busiest interstate on the east coast, I-95. Obviously, there is something about location. Thanks for article.
Jeff Holland

AmericanDirt said...

Jeff Holland--
Thanks for your observations. I'll admit I don't know much about the part of Virginia where you currently leave, but I'd guess the trade area has a bit more oomph over there than this one in Effingham. Even though Effingham is at an important crossroads, it's still hard to imagine that there was a time would it could support two malls. Now it's questionable how it would support even one, and the same can be said, no doubt, for Mt. Vernon, which I haven't visited...but maybe I will sometime. I appreciate your observations.

Anonymous said...

this mall from what I heard was supposed to help Effingham. It used to have a grocery store, which is now a storage house for boats, and the Night Terror used to be a Murphys store, The big building in the back used to have a 2 story indoor amusement park filled with all kinds of carnival rides, including a ferris wheel, bumper cars, roller rink and all kinda goodies back in the late
70's to mid 80's, I as a kid back then when it closed always wanted to reopen that thing, the mall used to have 3 resturants in its hey day, a place in the murphys, a ice cream shop and a place to eat in the arcade. The mall used to be a great area to hang out and pick thru all sorts of records. I really do wish they would bring the mall back to life, but its almost gone except for a handful of stores