The Huntington Mall has seen its 40th anniversary. Yet the cold hard truth is that the mall shouldn’t have been built in the Ona area. It should have been built in downtown Huntington, where it would have created a retail hub that would breathe life into the city’s central business district.
The first sentence in the above paragraph is a statement of fact. The second and third sentences are opinions believed by many people who were around when the mall was built, but they are false.
The mall was built where it should have been built.
Several years ago a car dealership relocated from downtown Huntington to the mall area. The dealership’s owner told me that market research showed people who lived east of the mall — Milton, Hurricane and elsewhere — were willing to travel as far west as the mall to shop, while people west of the mall — Huntington, Kenova and parts of Ohio — would travel as far east as the mall. Thus, the mall had found the sweet spot to draw from a wide market.
That was before the Merritt Creek Farm and Tanyard Station developments a couple of miles west of the mall. They undoubtedly draw from the same market as the Huntington Mall.
There is no way a mall in downtown Huntington, at the Hal Greer exit or the 29th Street exit would have attracted the same number of stores and hotels on its outer rim as the Huntington Mall has. Just building a mall is no guarantee of its long-term success. Had a mall been built downtown, it could have had the same problems the Charleston Town Center has had. In addition to that, the presence of the Town Center certainly didn’t prevent the retail developments on Corridor G south of Charleston.
While the mall may have contributed to some of downtown Huntington’s problems, it’s not the primary culprit. Downtown Huntington’s problems are the same as many other downtowns in the Ohio Valley. Since the mall opened, locally owned banks have been bought up by national, superregional and regional chains. The retail environment has rewarded big box stores at the expense of family-owned ones. And for any number of reasons, the Baby Boomers and Generation X have not had the same enthusiasm for entrepreneurship that their parents had.
An older generation in Huntington tended to complain about things that didn’t happen. They complained about Interstate 64 being routed south of town instead of through town, but they never said which neighborhoods they wanted to destroy to make that happen. Likewise they complained that the mall should have been built in town.
Much of that generation has passed on, leaving one that has no memory of downtown Huntington or life in general in these parts before the mall. People younger than 45 grew up with the mall having always been there. While one generation fought over where it should be built, this younger one will use its market power to decide how long the mall remains a vital part of our economy.