Joey Gill's Commentary

User submitted June 18, 2011

The Aiken Mall is a small one-story shopping mall in the city of Aiken, South Carolina. It was built in 1989, and after doing lots of searching, I couldn't find the name of the developer.

The mall is fortunate to be surrounded by the bustling area along Whiskey Road, and conveniently located off Highway 1 and just minutes from I-20.

The mall was busy through the 1990s, with anchor stores Belk, Sears, JCPenney, Phar-Mor, and Brendles. Offsite nearby, an 8 screen movie theater opened by theater giant Regal Cinemas, called the Aiken Mall Cinemas 8.

Brendles and Phar-Mor both closed relatively early, Brendles closed in 1996 when the entire chain shut down, Phar-Mor closed earlier than that. Their buildings sat empty until 2000 when Dillard's moved from their standalone building in Heritage Square shopping center to the mall.

In it's heyday, the mall's more than 40 stores were all occupied with most typical retailers, one of which was the Gap, which was one of the first stores in the mall when it opened.

However, the mall has a history of financial trouble. According to an article in the Augusta Chronicle in 1998, Zamias Services, of Johnstown, PA, owners and managers at the time, had a $29 million foreclosure lawsuit filed against them for not paying a $240,000 monthly mortgage payment in October 1997 to New York-based Metropolitan Life Insurance, Co., for a mortgage taken out on the mall in 1990. According to the suit, the sum of $29.1 million was due as of Dec. 31, 1997. The amount was based on an outstanding principal of $27.6 million and accrued interest to Jan. 1 of about $1.6 million. Metropolitan held $109,000 in escrow from the partnership. The suit asked the court to determine the amount owed along with attorneys fees, court costs and foreclose on the property. It also asked that the court to sell the property and use the money received to pay the loan and attorneys fees.

Metropolitan Life brought in Urban Retail Properties, LLC to own/manage the mall in 1998. They have since pulled out of the property. The only evidence of who owns the property now is a GIS listing on the county website that states the mall is owned by Aiken Mall Acquisition, LLC.

Unfortunately for the small town mall, it's plagued by the area's slow growth and its rival from the Georgia side of the Savannah River, Augusta Mall. Much like the death of Regency Mall to Augusta Mall, Aiken Mall has been dying a slow and painful death for many years because Aiken residents much rather cross the river and drive the distance to go to the much larger and nicer Augusta Mall. Also, crime in and around the Aiken Mall area has gone up in recent years. In 2007, much like what happened in 1986 with a 16-year-old girl at the Regency Mall -- a 17-year-old girl was abducted from the parking lot one night and raped.

I recently visited back in 2007, there were many stores in the mall at this time. Gap Outlet (which was formerly a regular Gap store), Pacsun, Aeropostale, FYE, Dollar Tree, Bath and Body Works, a couple of jewelry stores, Foot Locker, Kirklands, a toy store, and several eateries. Notably absent were stores that the Augusta Mall had that generated a lot of business, such as American Eagle, Abercrombie, Spencer's, Claire's, Express, and Gymboree. The mall did not even have a food court, but rather a few eateries opened up in one corridor of the mall.

With the growth of the area and the nearby Aiken Exchange lifestyle center that opened in 2000, Aiken Mall was doomed. Many big-box retailers have opened up along the same stretch of Whiskey Road, such as Walmart, Target, Old Navy, TJMaxx, Ross, and others.

At that time in 2007, there were about 10 storefronts that were empty, and there were already signs that the mall was being neglected. The mall's decor had not been updated since it opened in 1989, and still sported a look that a mall from that era would have. The mall was rather dark, the few small skylights and the lighting from the ceiling was not near adequate enough to light up the mall. The mall seemed really dated, but nonetheless it seemed very busy with people.

In 2008, stores began to leave the mall. The Gap (which became a Gap Outlet in 2006), and was one of the first stores in the mall, was one of the first stores to leave the Aiken Mall in a stream, citing economic reasons for the store shutting down. In a never ending flow, stores began pulling out of the mall and relocating elsewhere or just pulling out of Aiken in general. In 2009, Kirklands closed it's Aiken Mall store. Dollar Tree, which had been around since around the time the mall opened, closed in early 2011. FYE pulled out also in early 2011. Now out of the malls over 40 stores, only about roughly 18 are actually open and operating, and most of which are local businesses opening up in the mall. Most big retailers have all but pulled out of the mall's concourse.

The only sign of life the mall has is it's anchor stores, which are the only thing keeping this dead mall alive. Sears, JCPenney, Belk (which recently closed it's Home Store storefront in the mall), Dillards, and a brand new Books-A-Million which opened next to Sears in 2008 are still operating and thriving. Meanwhile, they keep their mall entrances open to a dying and sad sight, whose only purpose really is to serve as an indoor hallway to each anchor store and the very few stores still open inside.

According to mall management in a recent interview with a local TV station about stores closing, they are at 90% occupancy. They base it on the amount of square feet occupied and not the number of stores open and running. Mall management says they are nowhere close to filing bankruptcy.

As long as the area around the mall thrives with the small town local residents, and more stores move to the Augusta Mall, the Aiken Mall does not have a surviving chance.

I returned on June 17, 2011, the dated dark corridors seemed darker and most of the mall's stores were closed now with the exception of a couple here and there. There were very shady characters roaming the mall concourse and it made me very uneasy. There may have been 20 people in the entire mall area. Other than the skylights, some of the bulbs in the ceiling lighting have burned out, and there were several bulbs flickering all the way down. The mall seriously needs remodeling, but for looking the exact same way it did when it opened, the ceiling tiles, floor tiles, and the somewhat faded paint have held up very well.

If the time comes, and it probably will, eventually one or several of the mall's anchors will close. Then the mall will become a traditional dead mall in a sense. If you ask me though, it's been dead for years.

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