Thursday, September 11, 2014

Goodbye to malls, all around

Thirty-four years ago, my family (wife and three small children) and I were excited to be moving to a city with a mall. We were moving from Danville, Va., which, despite its charms, did not have a mall. It had downtown retailers and a couple of strip shopping centers with major retailers, but no mall. If we wanted to go to a mall, we had to drive an hour or more to Greensboro or Durham.

We discovered that Wilson not only had a mall, its mall was new (open just a couple of years) and packed with a variety of retailers: Belk, Penney's, two or three restaurants, some local clothing stores, a drug store, a child-magnet toy store, a kitchen store, and a number of shoe stores. We made the mall a favorite destination, whether for the sales at Belk or the ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.

In the ensuing years, Parkwood Mall expanded and added stores and kiosks. It continued to be a favored shopping destination. But things changed. Mall ownership and management changed. Maybe the owners got greedy and charged too-high rent. Some retailers left. Scary-looking, inconsiderate teens turned the mall's open space into a threatening hangout. Customers didn't like being hassled by the scruffy mall inhabitants, and crime in the parking lot rose.

The mall began its steady decline. And now it's no longer a mall. What had been Wilson's prime retail location has turned into a ghost town with only a couple of major retailers hanging on, the mall's interior corridors permanently closed.

Malls have gone out of favor across the country, so maybe Parkwood's decline is not just the result of local ownership errors. The latest owner has even changed the mall's name, to Wilson Mall. Why? A multiplex theater now dominates the former mall site, and the owners have been saying for months that they will demolish the old mall, leaving ... what? A big parking lot? It's hard to believe that these owners might be willing to invest in the property and turn it into a combination retail and residential space, like North Hills in Raleigh (formerly the management company for Parkwood Mall). The owners have allowed bank buildings, a huge failed supermarket building and a tornado-damaged detached building sit vacant and become a graffiti platform.

I have no real hopes for the former Parkwood Mall, but I still have a soft spot for really good malls, where you can go from store to store without getting wet or cold or hot, and a new storefront entices you every 30 feet. It's an era that has passed, apparently, but I enjoyed while it lasted.

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