In the 1960s, sprawling enclosed shopping malls began rising at the edges of our nation's big cities and in the suburbs. A mass exodus of retail firms from downtowns began in the 1950s, and malls were the next phase of the shopping plaza trend.
Shoppers embraced the concept of patronizing multiple stores at one location, and not having to feed coins into meters to park. And they loved the convenience of walking from store to store without having to battle rain, snow, wind and freezing temperatures.
Northeast Ohio companies such as the Richard E. Jacobs Group, DeBartolo Corp. and Cafaro Co. became premier developers of malls.
Some Ohio malls continue to be successful a half-century after going up, but others haven't been so lucky. Declining neighborhoods, the popularity of newer, open-air complexes and online shopping have doomed them.
In the Cleveland area, mixed-use developments such as Legacy Village, Crocker Park and Eton have grown in popularity, as have Easton Town Center and Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus.
Some of Northeast Ohio's most popular shopping venues -- such as Randall Park Mall, Rolling Acres in Akron and Canton Centre in Canton -- now are abandoned blights on the landscape.
Recently, I set out on a fall Saturday to check out two "dead" malls I hadn't visited in years -- Rolling Acres and Canton Centre.
ROLLING ACRES MALL
The two-level Rolling Acres was Akron's largest mall. It opened in 1975, shortly after I graduated from Kent State University, with 1.3 million square feet of retail space.
It is located about a mile off Interstate-77 in the southwest corner of the city on Romig Road. I visited it several times after it opened and after I moved to Kent in the late 1980s to work for the Advocate.
The entire Romig Road corridor has seen many retail businesses close in recent years as the neighborhood deteriorated. Most of the mall's 140 stores closed by 2008, and the last one to close was JC's 5-Star Outlet in December 2013.
The mall is now a sad sight -- mostly boarded up, with weeds growing in the parking lot, ruts and huge potholes in the pavement and tires and matresses strewn around.
The mall once was home to several anchor stores -- J.C. Penney, Sears, Montgomery Ward, O'Neals (later May Co. and Kaufmann's), Higbee's (later Dillard's) and Target (an addition in 1995).
Several of the buildings on outparcels, including former restaurants, also are abandoned. Motorcyclists were using the parking lot for racing when I drove by. There have been reports that homeless people have lived inside from time to time.
Three non-retail businesses operate at the site -- two storage firms in the old Target and Dillard's stores and a paper recycling company in the old Sears.
A California firm owns about half of the vacant space. Akron city officials hoped to foreclose on the property and demolish the buildings, but the owner filed for bankruptcy in early October, thus staving off a scheduled sheriff's sale.
CANTON CENTRE MALL
When I was growing up, this was the first mall my parents patronized. They bought a lot of clothes for me at Richman Brothers, including a favorite colorful sport coat I wore during high school and college.
It opened in 1965 as Mellett Mall, honoring Canton News editor Donald Mellett, who crusaded against organized crime in the 1920s and was gunned down in his driveway in 1926.
The name was changed in 1988 after a multi-million dollar renovation. Many people chastised the change, feeling that the mall should continue to memorialize Mellett.
The property is less than a mile away from the World War II era U.S. Navy Ordnance Plant. My dad worked for the E.W. Bliss Co. and later Babcock and Wilcox in some of the old plant buildings from 1952 until retiring in 1978.
Today, the original J.C. Penney store is all that remains in business. The Montgomery Ward store on the mall's east side was demolished in 2004 to make way for a Walmart.
J.C. Penney customers entering the structure from the east side must walk through the now abandoned L-shaped concourse, with metal gates blocking entrances to the retail units. A circular fountain no longer spouts water.
It was very sad to walk the empty corridor. The only people I passed were two older fellows sitting at a table talking. Like me, I'm sure they recall the heyday of the mall.
RANDALL PARK MALL
The demise of this mall in the southeast Cleveland suburb of North Randall is perhaps the most heart-breaking, considering it once was the largest enclosed mall in the country.
It was built by the the DeBartolo Corp., opened one year after Rolling Acres (1976) and contained 2.2 million square feet on two levels. A friend and I used to drive up there a from New Philadelphia.
The mall is on the site of the former Randall Race Track. In its heyday, it employed 5,000 people. In the late 1970s / early 1980s, several high-profile crimes in the neighborhood chased shoppers away.
By the late 1980s, most of the top-tier retailers had exited. By 2003, only a few internal stores remained, and all of them were gone by 2009, including a theater complex.
Today, Ohio Technical College's Power Sports Institute occupies a part of the site which is accessible from the outside, as does Burlington Coat Factory and Lasalle Furniture and Mattress.
Earlier this year, I read that most of Randall Park would be demolished and developed into a 100-acre industrial park, which could create 2,000 jobs. I'm not sure of the status of that project.
NORTHLAND / CITY CENTER
Visits to my uncle's home in Columbus were a favorite activity when I was growing up in the 1960s. Many times, those visits included stopping by Northland Mall.
Northland was Columbus' first large mall, having been built by the Jacobs Group in 1964. The area around it was largely farmland then, but now is occupied by thousands of acres of homes and commercial businesses.
Northland at first was an open-air facility, but was enclosed and expanded in 1979. Its last stores closed in 2002 and most of the buildings were razed in 2004.
As is the case with many mall closings, Northland was doomed by the dawn of newer shopping venues such as the Mall at Tuttle Crossing, Columbus City Center, Easton Town Square and Polaris Fashion Place.
Offices for the Ohio Department of Taxation and the Northland Performing Arts Center now occupy the former Lazarus and J.C. Penney stores. A Menard's and the Franklin County Dog Shelter have moved to the site.
Columbus City Center, which was downtown just south of the State Capitol, had a short life. The 1.2 million-square-foot complex opened in 1989, closed in 2009 and was razed shortly after.
It was central Ohio's largest and most upscale mall, with 144 tenants at its peak. It was connected to the original Lazarus department store by an enclosed bridge over South High Street.
OTHER OHIO MALLS
There probably are a handful of other once thriving malls which are now abandoned in Ohio. But many others have survived the changing trends in the retail industry.
Another Cleveland area "dead" mall is Euclid Square, which opened in 1977 and consists of about 632,000 square feet. It now houses several small churches.
The former Parmatown Mall, now the Shoppes at Parma, is undergoing a renovation of its 990,000 square feet. It was an open-air center when built in 1956 and was enclosed in the mid-1960s. Reconstruction began in 2013.
Among Cleveland area malls still going strong are Great Lakes in Mentor, which became Ohio's first major enclosed mall in 1961; Tower City in downtown Cleveland, Richmond Town Square, Beachwood Place, Great Northern in North Olmsted, Southpark Center in Strongsville and Midway in Elyria.
Although struggling in recent years, Chapel Hill in east Akron maintains a high occupacy rate, as do Summit Mall on the west side of Akron and Belden Village north of Canton.
Some other thriving malls I've visited around the Buckeye State are Eastwood in Niles, New Town in New Philadelphia, Eastland in Columbus, Southern Park in Youngstown, Fort Steuben in Steubenville, Dayton Mall, Colony Square in Zanesville and Indian Mound in Newark.
My native New Philly's first mall -- Monroe -- suffered as a retail center when New Town was opened in 1988, and now consists of mostly offices and service-oriented businesses.
Cleveland photographer Seph Lawless has documented crumbling buildings and economic decline across America in several books. One is titled "Black Friday: Ghostly Images of Abandoned Malls." I'm hoping to peruse it soon.
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