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Kaleidoscope: Another area mall struggling; road work tangles downtown Akron

by KEN LAHMERS | EDITOR Published: April 19, 2017 1:00 AM
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I have written about the demise of many malls in big cities and suburbs, and there has been plenty of other stories written about that topic in recent years.

On April 1 -- no fooling! -- I was eating at a restaurant in the Chapel Hill area of Akron, and afterward decided to stroll through Chapel Hill Mall. I hadn't been inside for more than a year, but have been reading about several of its stores closing.

As I drove around the south side of the mall, the first thing I noticed was no vehicles parked outside the Sears store or anyone going into or out of its several doors.

The reason? It closed recently. It was the second anchor store at the mall to close, following in the footsteps of Macy's (formerly O'Neill's, the May Co. and Kaufmann's). Over the years, I had bought a couple of pairs of eyeglasses from Sears' optical department.

That leaves only J.C. Penney as an anchor, and that retailer announced recently that several of its stores are closing. Chapel Hill is not one of them, but one location in Ohio that is doomed is at New Town Mall in my hometown of New Philadelphia.

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I entered the mall on the side where the food court and a carousel are situated. Only about a half-dozen kids were enjoying rides on the merry-go-round.

I noticed about three food court spaces vacant and about the same number still operating. Few people were sitting and eating at the many tables; actually few people were walking around the entire complex.

While walking through the building, I counted 18 retail spaces abandoned, not including the movie theaters, which closed several years ago. And Payless Shoe Source just announced last week it will close its Chapel Hill store.

There are still a few clothing, shoe and eyeglass stores operating, and two or three jewelry shops, plus some specialty stores.

I was glad to see two of the existing businesses -- Foot Locker and Champs Sports -- still in business, since I own stock in Foot Locker, which is the company that took over F.W. Woolworth about three decades ago.

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Chapel Hill Mall, which boasts more than 800,000 square feet of space, was completed in 1967. When I was a teenager growing up in New Philly, a friend of mine and I would drive up there to walk around and shop.

In fact, that same friend lived close to the mall when he was attending electronics school in Cuyahoga Falls.

The carousel at the mall, by the way, displays images of Akron-area landmarks and icons such as Stan Hywet Hall, Blossom Music Center, Soap Box Derby Downs, a Goodyear blimp, Firestone Country Club and the Ohio and Erie Canal.

When Macy's closed in 2016, many people speculated the mall was on its way to oblivion. Now that Sears and several smaller retailers are closed, that fate is closer to reality, but the hammer hasn't dropped yet, and a rebound is always possible.

However, when two of three anchor stores are gone, it's a major blow. That scenario has played out at many malls I'm familiar with -- Northland in Columbus, Randall Park in North Randall, Monroe Mall in New Philly and Rolling Acres in Akron -- to name a few.

Speaking of the latter, after visiting Chapel Hill I drove over to the west side of Akron to check out the progress of its demolition, and found the center section is gone, but the large former stores on the ends stand in a dilapidated state.

Last year, the city of Akron took over ownership of the Rolling Acres property after no bids for the mall were received at a sheriff's sale. The former owner owed more than $1 million in real estate taxes.

Demolition of the mall, which was completed in 1975, got under way last fall. The structure contained 1.3 million square feet of space. Hopefully some day, redevelopment will revive the area, which has been plagued with the closing of several other big box and smaller businesses along Romig Road.

In mid-March while visiting Columbus for a girls high school state tournament basketball game, I drove by Northland Mall, which I visited many times as a youth during trips to see my aunt and uncle.

That mall along Morse Road on the northeast side of the city has been replaced by strip shopping centers and free-standing retailers and restaurants.

Malls became very popular in the late 1960s and into the '70s. People could walk around inside in all types of weather and be comfortable while having dozens of shopping options available.

To be truthful, I've always enjoyed malls. With a huge variety of stores and food courts, I loved being able to shop for various things, plus sit down and enjoy some fast food while watching people pass by.

At some of the sites, though, the atmosphere became less pleasing when rowdy gangs of youths and undesirable characters began hanging. A fight involving several youths broke out just in December at Beachwood Place.

Most of the malls that remain now have strict guidelines about youths congregating.

In the 1980s-90s and beyond, the retail trend began to swing toward large and small strip shopping plazas and multi-use complexes such as Legacy Village in Lyndhurst, Crocker Park in Westlake, the Strip in North Canton and Easton Town Center in Columbus, plus big box chains.

It's sad to see well-respected, longtime stores such as Sears, Penney, Kmart and Macy's struggle as they are now doing. In my younger years, I remember Nichol's, Hart's, Conley's, Gold Circle, Giant Tiger and the like being the first big box chains. Now they are gone, and Walmart and Target rule the roost.

There's one thing we always can rely upon in our lifetimes -- change is inevitable.

 

TOUGH TO GET AROUND

Having not been in the downtown Akron area -- except for passing the city on interstate highways -- in the past few months, I decided to take some time to explore the landscape while driving between Chapel Hill and Rolling Acres malls.

Frankly, there are parts of the city which are a mess right now, with an abundance of road construction ongoing.

Some interchanges along I-77 and I-76 in the central part of town are being reconfigured. Entrance and exit ramps that I once were familiar with aren't there now. I had to drive through some uncomfortable neighborhoods while searching for a ramp to get onto the interstate.

Along South Main Street particularly -- south of the old Goodrich Tire complex -- many buildings have been demolished to make way for the new interchanges. One of those historic buildings was the former Akron Brewing Co., which for several decades has been occupied by Tasty Pure Food Co. of Sumner Butter fame.

The landscape around there looks like a moonscape -- piles of bricks from landmark buildings in empty lots, torn up road surfaces, orange barrels everywhere, roads closed and detour signs every few hundred feet.

A couple of months ago, ODOT began removing the Akron Innerbelt (Route 59), and several streets near there are closed. Some businesses in the Northside Arts District, including the popular Luigi's Italian restaurant, are difficult to reach.

A $6 million sanitary sewer project is causing much of the disruption, too.

For sure, I'll be staying out of those areas for the next few months.

Email: klahmers@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4189


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