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The Afterlife of Northeast Ohio's Malls

The sign welcoming you to the Euclid Square Mall is a little worse for wear
The sign welcoming you to the Euclid Square Mall is a little worse for wear

Larry James recalls Euclid Square Mall was hopping when he was a teenager.

LARRY JAMES: The parking lot was full, with people all over the place. Great place to sit down and look at the water fountains and, you know, girl watch, back in those days. Then it just…just…died.

The fountains were shut-off years ago, former fast-food stands now sit shuttered, and tuxedoed manikins in store windows stare out at empty walkways. Euclid Square was part of a mall-building boom in the 1970s, and it had a great location, near the intersection of two major interstates. But, then came the Great Lakes Mall, just a few highway stops away, and Richmond Town Square, just four miles down the road. Real estate broker Kevin Cooney says that proved attractive to one of the Euclid mall's major tenants.

KEVIN COONEY: May Company had a 25-year commitment to keep the doors open, and when that was up, they moved to Richmond. That was the first shoe to drop, so to speak.

And the shoes kept dropping until late last month, when Euclid Square’s last anchor store --- a Dillard's outlet --- finally shut down. Cooney says the owner has been trying to unload the 71-acre property for years, but hasn't found any buyers.

Cleveland State Professor of Real Estate Development Robert Simons says an empty mall is a burden not only to the property owner, but to the community around it.

ROBERT SIMONS: Eventually it will be assessed by the tax authorities at lower than it was, which means its proportionate share of property taxes will go down, and it'll have fewer jobs, the income taxes will go down.

Rolling Acres --- a once popular mall on the southwest side of Akron --- is now largely abandoned. The Summit County fiscal office reports that the Akron schools are annually losing more than $67,000 in taxes from the deteriorating property, which is the subject of several youtube commentaries, such as this one featuring a tour though the potholed parking lot.

SOUND: [hits pothole] "Ooof! Geez. Big pile of brush over there. People just dump anything here. Look over there --- there's a couch! The parking lot's starting to go back to Mother Nature…" UNDER & OUT

Akron's Deputy Mayor of Economic Development, Robert Bowman, says any hope of re-using the land will depend on untangling who owns what.

ROBERT BOWMAN: Sears, Penny's, Dillard's, and Target --- those were the big box stores and they were owned individually, so it creates a problem in re-development when the mall goes down, and that's entering a foreclosure process, we believe.

Across the country, communities have gotten inventive in finding new ways to re-frame former malls. Aquariums, schools and casinos have moved into spaces formerly occupied by shoe stores, record shops, and restaurants. One of the more unusual adaptive re-uses can be found back at Euclid Square Mall which is now home to 24 Christian congregations

SOUND: church service UP & UNDER

Leonard Rowe is pastor for one of the newest churches to move in --- New Vision Missionary Baptist. He says it's a similar concept to the traditional storefront church that can be found throughout the inner city, but in this case it's climate controlled and the parishioners feel safer.

PASTOR ROWE: It's something that's appealing to the people, because people mostly came to the mall to do shopping. And here, we're just letting them know you don't have to shop for clothes, now. You can come shop for the Holy Ghost.

Real Estate expert Robert Simons is dubious about the long-term economic viability of a mall full of churches, saying there are probably better ways to go.

ROBERT SIMONS: The best idea is probably to scrape the site flat and just build housing on it or whatever the highest best use is.

Of course, not all malls are dead. Summit Mall in suburban Akron keeps pulling in customers, as does Great Northern in North Olmsted. And the formerly failing Parmatown Mall, recently got a two million-dollar loan from the Cuyahoga County Council for a makeover that will include a name change to "The Shoppes at Parma". That's "Shoppes" with an "E" at the end. In a time when on-line retail has reduced the need to physically go to stores, and young people meet their "friends" on Facebook instead of by the fountains, a mall needs every advantage it can get. DCB, 90.3

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.