Local history: Future looked bright when Midway Plaza debuted in December 1955
American retail was changing. Suburban consumers increasingly preferred to shop closer to home instead of venturing into the central city.
Midway Plaza debuted in December 1955 with glowing signs, sparkling fixtures and gleaming aisles. The 18-acre property at Brittain Road and Tallmadge Avenue straddled the Tallmadge-Akron line and offered a 20-unit complex with 135,000 square feet of floor space and parking for 1,250 gigantic automobiles with tail fins.
Youngstown developer Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. built the shopping center for $1.5 million (more than $14 million today). He had already constructed Westgate Shopping Center, State Road Shopping Center, State Road Plaza and Fairlawn Plaza, but was still a decade away from building Summit Mall.
“The universal success of shopping center merchants is due primarily to more than a decade of decentralization and to the new era of two and three automobiles per family and the resulting easy living of suburban life,” DeBartolo explained.
“My faith in the Akron-Cleveland area is a matter of record. I look forward to an even brighter future for this progressive area and I’m proud to be a part of its development.”
The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., better known as A&P, held its grand-opening celebration Dec. 15 as Midway Plaza’s first occupant. The grocery store gave away 100 prizes, including bicycles, an electric clock, a portable radio, a cutlery set, a coffee maker, a portable drill and a bathroom scale.
The grand prize was a $1,044 Emerson TV console that included a $25 installation, 90-day warranty on parts and a one-year guarantee on picture tube.
“Think what a thrill it would be to win this beautiful COLOR TV set for Christmas!” A&P advertised. “It has a 21-inch screen and is a gorgeous piece of furniture. You’d be the envy of your neighborhood with the first color TV.”
The store had electric-eye doors and 10 checkout aisles including an express lane for customers with only a few purchases.
The meat department had a “refrigerated conveyor” in which cuts were weighed, priced and wrapped en route to customers. Opening specials included pork chops (40 cents a pound), sliced bacon (35 cents a pound), ground beef (39 cents a pound), pork sausage (27 cents a pound) and chuck roast (35 cents a pound).
Next to open was Isaly’s Dairy Store on Jan. 6, 1956: “Come tomorrow. Bring the children. Enjoy this celebration with us. Make a day of it. See the most modern and beautiful dairy store in Eastern Ohio.”
Specials included a free skyscraper ice cream cone with any purchase of 25 cents or more, 25-cent hamburgers, 19-cent milkshakes and a 29-cent banana split.
The W.T. Grant Co. opened Feb. 16 and pledged: “You Must Be Satisfied Or Your Money Back.” Specials included bobby socks (44 cents), men’s briefs (58 cents), aprons (79 cents), stretch nylons (77 cents) and a free parakeet with the purchase of a $3.98 bird cage.
The S.S. Kresge store opened Feb. 24 and immediately blew up. As 200 shoppers browsed the aisles, a gas-fired boiler exploded, seriously burning an employee and shattering the plate-glass windows. The store cleaned up and reopened the next day.
Over the months, the complex welcomed Loblaws grocery store, the W.E. Wright Co., Peoples Drug Store, Western Auto Store, Parker’s Quality Meats, Rosen’s Bake Shop, Nobil’s Shoes, Thom McAn, FabricFair, Adeline’s Women’s Apparel, Michael’s Men’s Wear, Lowry Kiddie Shop, the Holiday Shop and the oddly named Fish Dry Cleaning.
“Get the Plaza Habit,” the Midway Plaza Merchants Association advertised. “Dress Casually and Shop Leisurely.”
Filled to capacity, Midway Plaza celebrated its official grand opening June 12-16, 1956, as part of Tallmadge’s sesquicentennial celebration. Fallon’s Kiddie Land set up amusement rides and Slim Lattimer’s Orchestra supplied music. In a beard-growing competition, Tallmadge men won 100 gallons of gas for having the longest beard, the largest mustache and the best-looking growth.
Change was a constant theme at Midway. DeBartolo sold the plaza in 1960 to Shriber Enterprises Inc. for $1.5 million. When shops left, vacancies didn’t last long. New stores included Del Farms, Kravitz Feminine Apparel, Fashionaire Styling, Clegg’s Bakery and Sterling Health & Beauty Aids.
A mile north on Brittain Road, Chapel Hill Mall opened in October 1967.
Also that month, Midway Plaza unveiled its signature feature: a red-and-yellow neon sign with a giant “M” on four sides. Seventy feet tall, it was built with 30,000 pounds of steel and supported by 90,000 pounds of concrete. Its flashing, animated patterns were visible 2 miles away.
Over the decades, the plaza welcomed many businesses, including Miracle Mart, Glamour Figure Salon, Panda Chinese Restaurant, Star Market, Arsenic and Old Lace, Home Center, Sam’s World of Golf, Basco, Value City, Carpet Barn & Tile House, Jo-Ann Fabrics, State Jewelers, High Point Furniture, Time Warner Cable, Save A Lot, Rent-A-Center, Appliance Mart, Goodwill Industries and a succession of beauty salons and barbershops.
In 1977, New York Yankees catcher Thurman Munson, an Akron native who grew up in Canton, bought the plaza with business partners Jesse F. Tucker and Ralph J. Guenther. The property was valued at $2 million.
Tucker said he wasn’t concerned about competition from Chapel Hill.
“Not everyone can live on Fifth Avenue, paying a high rental,” he told the Beacon Journal. “We feel there is a strong need for this type of shopping center.”
Stores came and went, but vacancies weren’t filled as quickly. Midway Plaza lost customers when a major retail area developed in the 1980s along Howe Avenue in Cuyahoga Falls. After decades at the plaza, businesses pulled up stakes.
The “M” sign stopped operating.
As if to punctuate how much the plaza had fallen in stature, Tallmadge police raided a massage parlor there in 2014 during an investigation into prostitution.
In 2016, Namdar Realty Group of Great Neck, New York, bought Midway for $1.2 million from Commercial Properties Inc. The company said it specialized in buying distressed properties and turning them around.
Today, the blighted plaza is mostly empty with only a few tenants. Goodwill Industries moved out last month, leaving the future uncertain.
Tallmadge Mayor David G. Kline, 63, a lifelong resident of the city, has fond memories of going to Midway Plaza as a child.
“Well, back in the day, that parking lot would fill up,” he said. “That would be a very busy place.”
He recalls shopping for groceries with his parents and buying his first bicycle, a red model, at Western Auto. He remembers the “big flashing M” sign and said it was “always pretty neat to see that standing up there.”
It’s been sad to see the plaza deteriorate.
“We’ve been really trying to work with the property owners to clean the place up and make it viable again,” Kline said. “They’re just not willing to sink money into it, I don’t think.”
Many brick-and-mortar stores have a hard time competing with online shopping, he said.
“I can sit on my computer at home and have this stuff delivered the next day at my front door,” Kline said.
Ultimately, he thinks, Midway Plaza’s owners have two options: “Clean it up or tear it down.”
“I think it’s a teardown,” he said.
Mark J. Price can be reached at email@example.com.