Sam Scholtens' Commentary

Posted September 12, 2010 (user submitted)

Serving the 11,000 residents of Houghton and Hancock, as well as 7,600 students at Michigan Tech and Finlandia universities, Copper Country Mall is the only mall within a 95-mile radius of a very small community. Despite this, it has fallen on hard times in the past decade, with no relief in sight.

Copper Country Mall opened in 1981 with about 40 tenants, anchored by Kmart, City Drug, and a two-screen theater at the west end, Spurgeon’s Department Store in the center, and JCPenney at the east end. The mall layout is a more or less a straight line with some open space and a slight jog in the middle. Entrances are at the west, center, and through JCPenney. At some point, the theater was expanded to 3 and then 5 screens and City Drug became Dunham’s Sporting Goods. Spurgeon’s closed in the early 90s; the space became Jo-Ann Fabrics, Footlocker, and a tiny, unknown third store. Sometime roughly around 2000 a freestanding OfficeMax was built east of JCPenney. Overall the mall enjoyed 20 solid years of success with both national and local retailers.

Trouble arrived in 2002 when Kmart, in bankruptcy, shut its doors. A massive wave of store closings followed. In 2004 alone, Vanity, Tradehome Shoes, Hallmark, Glik’s, Payless ShoeSource, and Sam Goody all left. Jo-Ann also closed in 2005, leaving two anchor spaces vacant. Finally, Steve & Barry’s opened in the former Kmart in November 2005. (Yes, it took up the entire 80,000 square feet!) This at least stopped the bleeding, leaving about 20 stores and a lot of labelscars.

However, several factors were still working against Copper Country Mall. First, the mall is so far south of town that Houghton’s sprawl has barely reached it even today. Strip malls have popped up closer to downtown and Michigan Tech, drawing business away. Second, Walmart expanded into a 24-hour Supercenter in 2006, providing cheaper competition to the mall’s specialty stores. Third, people started turning toward the big box stores and Westwood Mall in Marquette for major purchases and holiday shopping.

In 2008, stores began closing again. Superior National Bank relocated into a new strip mall in August, where Maurices is soon planning to move as well. Also in August, the movie theater departed without warning, even before its lease expired. I can say from personal experience that 90% of anybody’s visits to the mall was to catch a movie. It was the biggest theater in Houghton-Hancock. Footlocker closed in September. Steve & Barry’s, echoing Kmart, went into bankruptcy and announced massive store closings, including­you guessed it­Houghton. Despite being in a college town, it was never a big draw.

Copper Country Mall is becoming quite an eyesore. It appears to still have its original 80s décor­dull gray walls, brown tile floors, no fountains, and little plant life. Most vacant storefronts still stand minus sign and furnishings, a couple not even closed off. What little is left is surprisingly well maintained. However, the store directories have not been updated in over a year.

After Steve & Barry’s and Maurices leave, all that will remain are Dunham’s and A&W Hot Dogs & More in the west wing, JCPenney in the east wing, and about 10 stores huddled around the center entrance. (OfficeMax is also still open.) Today it is rare to see 40 cars in the parking lot. I’ve heard speculation that Developers Diversified Realty has been an absentee landlord for a while, keeping the mall open only for tax purposes. They haven’t announced any plans, so it is safe to assume that the CC Mall will sit as-is over the next few years, with the last dozen tenants leaving one by one.

Links - The mall’s website, which is a few months out-of-date
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