Anonymous's Commentary

Posted May 19, 2011 (user submitted March 30, 2007)

The Mall at Cortana, formerly the Cortana Mall, is Baton Rouge’s oldest extant mall (of four total historically). Opened on Wednesday, August 4, 1976 after four years of preparation and construction, it was at the time called one of the nation’s largest malls, with 1.4 million sq. ft. of retail space and space for six anchors. It is located about a mile to the east of the area’s first mall, Bon Marche, and was largely responsible for that center’s demise. It is located on the northeast side of the interchange of Florida Blvd. and Airline Hwy. in Baton Rouge, close to the region’s geographic heart.

The original anchors were JC Penney (with car care center in the parking lot), Sears, Goudchaux’s (a BR-based dept. store chain), and Dillards. Another BR-based store, HJ Wilson Co., opened a little later (Wilson’s was a catalog outlet store similar to Service Merchandise). Mervyn’s later took the sixth anchor spot but not immediately upon opening (I think the sixth anchor was added in the 1980s).

Original inline tenants included Piccadilly Cafeteria (still there), Thom McAn, Foxmore Casuals, Chess Kingman’s, Dutch Maid Doughnut Shop, Space Port Amusement Center, City National Bank, and Capital Bank. There was room for 100 stores at opening and currently there is space for 110. The name “Cortana” derives from the adjacent area; the mall is located on the old Cortana Plantation property.

Over time the anchor mix has changed. HJ Wilson was purchased by Service Merchandise in 1985 and consequently replaced at Cortana with an outlet of that chain; when Service Merchandise itself closed in 2002, the site sat empty until 2004 when Steve and Barry’s University Sportswear moved into its place. The Dillards relocated at one point to the old Goudchaux’s, possibly when that chain folded; in its place has been a rotating mix of anchors: Maison Blanche, McRae’s, Parisian, Foley’s, and finally Macy*s as of September 2006. Mervyn’s vacated its store during its recent restructuring as they pulled out of Louisiana (and several other states) entirely; the store remains vacant, with labelscars still showing. JC Penney and Sears have been constants since day one.

In terms of design, the mall is vintage 1970s on the exterior, but bland and modern on the inside, though here and there the mall shows its age. There are a few small skylights. There are interior planters and water fountains which are basically unchanged from opening day 30 years ago. The mall is in an L-shape with Sears and Dillards on the ends, JC Penney in the crook of the L (Penney’s has two mall entrances), the vacant anchor (former Mervyn’s) jutting off the corner of the L at an angle, and Macy*s and Steve and Barry’s to the side of the L on either side of the vacant anchor.

Inline tenants at present include Ruby Tuesday, Aeropostale, Champs Sports, Things Remembered, Stride Rite, American Eagle Outfitters, Body Shop, Frederick’s of Hollywood, Hot Topic, Wet Seal, Sunglass Hut, Waldenbooks, The Limited, Lane Bryant, Chick-fil-A, Victoria’s Secret, Payless Shoe Source, and many local stores. The mall has no true food court, but eateries are scattered throughout the mall corridors. A children’s playplace called “Cortanaland,” which is basically just an indoor playground, is located just outside the mall entrance to Steve and Barry’s. The mall parking lot contains a Firestone Tire outlet.

The Cortana Mall was the undisputed king of Baton Rouge retail until 1997 when the Mall of Louisiana opened at the intersection of I-10 and Bluebonnet Boulevard, in a rapidly growing area of Baton Rouge easily accessible from outlying areas. The opening of the Mall of La. diminished sales at Cortana by 15% in the first year after its opening. Cortana, in contrast to the Mall of La., is located in a mature part of the city and is not directly accessible from the interstate. However, the mall held its own for a while, partly by being relatively geographically distant from its competitor, and partly due to development of its outparcels which now include Lowe’s, a Wal-Mart Supercenter, Old Navy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Office Depot, Guitar Center, Burger King, and Bennigan’s restaurant.

The mall claimed 85% occupancy in 2004, 91% if not counting outparcels (a couple of strip centers on the outparcels have numerous vacancies). There must have been a massive die-off since this time. I first visited this mall in 2006; while the mall is holding its own, particularly in the central area, the extremities are showing major signs of mall rot, and the large numbers of vacancies are obvious, with occupancy probably around 70-75%. The former Mervyn’s wing and the far ends of the mall near Sears and Dillards are particularly distressing in this regard. Local stores and non-traditional tenants (such as the Post Office and a military recruiting office) are becoming more evident. The mall management likes to dress up the empty storefronts with advertising and window displays in a feeble attempt to mask the high vacancy rate.

Despite all this, this mall can not be written off yet. With four anchors, some thriving big boxes on the outparcels, and a proactive mall management (they promote the mall in the media a good deal), this mall is nowhere near death’s doorstep. I was in the mall during the 2006 holiday season and it was fairly busy, with empty spaces filled (at least temporarily) by seasonal retailers. However, the Mall of Louisiana continues to consolidate its gains in the Baton Rouge retail market and is gearing for expansion, with a recently opened Rave theater located behind that mall, a proposed open-air lifestyle center (as a new wing of the existing mall) in the works, and improved access with the opening of the Picardy Ave. extension and new interchange with I-10 which greatly improves access to the mall. Competition from the upper end has surfaced with the recent opening of the high-end Towne Centre at Cedar Lodge lifestyle center at the intersection of Jefferson Hwy. and Corporate Blvd., thus siphoning off those customers. Also, demographic pressures are chipping away, as the death of the Bon Marche Mall makes Cortana the most convenient choice for the predominantly poorer, blacker, northern portion of Baton Rouge where there are no malls or even major shopping centers to speak of. Slowly Cortana is becoming the “ghetto mall.”

The biggest threat to Cortana’s survival, though, comes from the inevitable future development of retail centers further out in the suburbs, particularly in Livingston Parish which is part of Cortana’s natural trade area (since it is the closest mall) ­ this could come in the form of a new mall, or more likely, a new large open-air shopping center. In fact, just recently a large-scale “lifestyle” development was announced for land adjacent to the under-construction Juban Road interchange on I-12 just east of fast-growing Denham Springs. This development, called Juban Crossing, which is said to be “far more than a mall,” (BR Advocate, p. A1, 12/13/06) and would include over 1 million sq. ft. of retail, housing, entertainment, and recreational amenities, could put the Mall at Cortana on life support after it opens in 2008.

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