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Ohio Valley Mall: Then and Now

Posted by Joe Bell on May 22, 2017
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The Ohio Valley Mall: Then and Now

Janell Hunter

 

May 22, 2017 jhunter@timesleaderonline.com

 

ST. CLAIRSVILLE – The Ohio Valley Mall has experienced many changes over the years since its opening in 1978.  Along the way it has grown with the community and evolved with the times.  The mall has reflected fluctuations in consumer preference, overall trends in the retail market and the needs of the community.

The Cafaro Co., the mall’s owner, developer and manager based in Niles, Ohio, is the largest privately owned shopping center development and management company in the United States. According to Cafaro, since 2006 the company has been engaged in an “aggressive program of renovation of its existing properties. Millions of dollars have been invested in refurbishing the Cafaro malls, adding features such as contemporary decor, food courts, children’s play areas and other popular customer amenities. In addition to physical reconstitution, the company is in the process of re-merchandising several properties.”

The mall’s original anchor stores were Sears, J.C. Penney, Kaufmann’s, Montgomery Ward and L.S. Good. Montgomery Ward closed and the site was occupied by Kmart in 1983; Kmart closed its doors in March of this year. Stone & Thomas replaced L.S. Good and eventually was bought out by Elder-Beerman. The Kaufmann’s space became Macy’s in 2006. J.C. Penney left the mall for space at The Highlands in Triadelphia in 2007. A Levin’s furniture outlet moved into that space, and Boscov’s replaced Levin’s and joined the mall’s anchor line-up in 2013.

A Marshalls store is currently under construction in a portion of the space once held by Elder-Beerman, which also closed earlier this year.

Sears, the only remaining original anchor, recently reported it is “fighting like hell” as a company to remain viable in the retail industry during “one of the most challenging periods for ‘brick and mortar’ retailers.”

“We are committed to improving short-term operating performance in order to achieve our long-term transformation,” said Sears Holdings CEO Edward Lampert earlier this year.

Several other mall stores — Woodbury Outfitters, Radio Shack, Things Remembered, MC Sports and hhgregg — have either closed this year or announced plans to close.

The mall originally opened on Oct. 4, 1978. “Thousands of valley residents and their families thronged to the Ohio Mall at the intersection of Banfield Road and Interstate 70 near St. Clairsville, as about 25 of 110 stores opened for business,” according to a report by Bill Speer, a writer for The Intelligencer at the time.

Specialty stores that opened in 1978 included, among others, Merry-Go-Round, Foxmoor’s, Hallmark, Rite-Aid, Walden Books, Rogers Jewelers, Ponderosa Steak House, National Record Mart, King’s Jewelers, Radio Shack, Ormond’s, PearleVision Center, Lerner, Thom McAn, The Limited and Aladdin’s Castle arcade.

The Sears store opened in early August 1978 to the delight of a crowd of “thousands,” according to then-General Manager Earl L. Robinson. “I’ve never seen such a turnout for a ribbon-cutting,” Robinson said, and noted that first-day sales were “far above our expectations.”

Long-time Sears employee James R. Wood had worked at both the Market Street and Chapline Street stores in Wheeling. He called the new store “a far cry from what we had” and said there was “no comparison” to the Wheeling stores.  He cited the amount of selection, custom-decoration, increased amount of parking and number of employees as being “innovations for the customers’ benefit.”

After the 1978 opening of the mall’s first 25 specialty stores, Robinson commented that “people are really missing something if they haven’t seen the mall. Word will quickly spread about the stained glass windows, greenery, fountains and beautiful environment of the mall.” 

The mall was well-received by area shoppers at the time. Betty Bonley, a Bridgeport resident at the time of the opening, said the mall was “just what we needed” and that it was ideal for those like herself who were on a fixed income and on Social Security.

“It’s just wonderful,” Bonley said. “I can’t wait until the whole thing is finished. I was surprised with the reasonable prices, and the employees are very nice. When we can get a ride to the mall, we can do all our shopping here without having to go anywhere else.”

The mall has been an important part of the community over the years, sponsoring and hosting events such as AAA Pre-Prom Safety Day, job fairs, caregiver fairs, Salvation Army Kettle drives, beauty pageants, fashion shows, an Elite Model search, celebrity meet-and-greets, bridal fairs, farmers’ markets, family game nights, as well as regular visits from Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

With the recent closures of so many retail chains that held real estate at the mall, some are concerned about the mall’s future while some are not as worried.

“The key thing to remember is through all the churning happening in the retail industry, we’ve seen this before,” said Cafaro spokesman Joe Bell. “Things decline over time. It is a ‘retail Darwinism’ — the fitter of the species will survive, and new businesses will always come in to take the place of businesses that decline.”

Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas said he has fond memories of the mall over the years and described it as a “huge positive influence” for sales tax dollars and for making it possible to fund county business. He noted that the biggest positive influence, besides sales tax dollars, is the large number of jobs it has provided for area residents.

“Since the county has limited taxing ability from the state, we truly survive and thrive based upon retail sales throughout the entire county: from small business to the big-box stores at the Ohio Valley Mall,” Thomas said. “Our annual $22 million dollar budget is heavily reliant upon sales taxes generated when we shop throughout the county and including the mall.”

Thomas said he commends and appreciates the Cafaro Co. for taking a “huge risk” back in the mid-’70s when it committed to Belmont County and eastern Ohio, noting it has been a successful venture for Cafaro as well as beneficial for the community.

“Over the years, the biggest change for the Ohio Valley Mall has been its continued growth. Since 1978, stores have come and gone as retail habits change, yet there is one common thread: the Cafaro Co. has been fully committed to Belmont County and its mall,” Thomas said. “The commissioners, past and present, owe a debt of gratitude to the company for its continued effort to expand the mall and provide us with as many shopping, eating and professional opportunities as they can bring here.”

Thomas emphasized that area residents “cannot complain we have no good shopping here” when many are choosing to shop online, a factor that has been blamed for the decline of the retail industry. “The good news here is that regardless of the current nationwide retail climate, the Cafaro Co. remains actively seeking tenants and will continue its efforts to fill empty spaces,” Thomas said. “I feel very optimistic about the mall’s future as our economy will continue to grow and, as it does, retailers will continue to want to do business here.”

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