Matt Abhold's Commentary

Posted April 24, 2011 (user submitted March 22, 2008)

I've forgotten how or where I heard about the Memorial Mall in the lakeshore city of 50,000+ population. I didn't even know Sheboygan had a mall. When I first visited, it was quite a sight to see a late-1960s-era mall still looking like it did years after opening.

First though, a little history.

Originally a development of Melvin Simon & Associates (now Simon Property Group) of Indianapolis IN, the groundwork for Sheboygan County's first (and still only) enclosed mall was laid in August of 1968 with the construction of its first store....a large 160,000 Sq Ft, 2-level JC Penney with an Auto Center as an out-parcel, both under the then-familiar 'Penney’s' banner. This store, the mall's flagship anchor, would open sometime in 1969. It was quickly followed up by the mall's two south anchors, a 40,000+ Sq Ft G.C. Murphy Variety/Discount store, along with an adjacent 20,000 Sq Ft. Del Farm Supermarket only accessable from the outside. A sizeable Walgreen pharmacy with included restaurant would also take up shop as a junior anchor along some inline space. Other businesses would follow suit, opening up within inline space between 1969-1970.

Although the mall would hold its official Grand Opening in April of 1970 with over 35 shops, eateries and services along with the aformentioned Penney, Murphy's and Del Farm, the third and final anchor abutting the north end, an 80,000 Sq Ft Sears (w/ attached Auto Center) would not open until November of that year, completing the 350,000+ Sq Ft. complex. At the time, and until the opening of Fond Du Lac's Forest Mall (1/3 bigger at nearly 500,000 Sq Ft, and boasting four large anchors), it was the largest enclosed shopping center in East-Central Wisconsin, and easily one of the largest north of Chicago IL. Only Brookfield Square in the Milwaukee metro area beat it both in opening date (1968 - two years prior), and in size. (Nearly 1-million Sq Ft)

Like with many cities, Memorial Mall was seen as a potential issue when it came to Sheboygan's storied downtown business district, still anchored by the historic H.C. Prange Co. which elected to stay downtown, while other major stores wound up moving out to the west-side shopping center. In an attempt to keep business from drying up, Eighth Ave going South between Kohler-Memorial Dr and southward was closed off to traffic to create a 'pedestrian mall'. This proved a near-disaster, and the changes were undone a few years later.

It's an ironic twist how business downtown is still around, if not thriving to this day. Pranges, now Younkers (since 1992) is still downtown and still doing a decent business, rather than at the now-troubled mall, which has seen nothing but a downward trend since my first visit in 1991. More on that visit later.

The mall would soldier on for a good two decades from its opening, serving the entire Lakefront chain of cities as its largest enclosed shopping center between Port Washington and Manitowoc, Wisconsin (which also had its own malls in Edgewater and Mid-Cities, abelt much smaller and (in Mid-Cities' case) already dead by the 1990s). The only major changes over this period would be the Murphy's discount store shuttering in the early 1980s to be remodeled and expanded to nearly 70,000 Sq Ft. Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based Kohl's Department Stores (then owned by BATUS, the same conglomorate who owned Wisconsin's division of Gimbles, as well as the historic Marshall Field & Co out of Chicago) would take up this anchor pad. The supermarket would shutter and in its place, new mall offices and a Deb Shop would locate in the space.

Other chains to call Memorial Mall 'home' over the years between 1970-1991 included Aladdin's Castle, Father & Son Shoes, Kindy Optical, Brooks Fashions, Gallenkamp Shoe, Shabree Jewelers, Page's Jewelers, Two Plus Two, The Original Cookie Co., Seiferts Fashions, Brauns Fashions, Goodyear Tire & Service Center, , Walden Bookstore (Waldenbooks), Foot Locker, Maurices, Key-Bee Toy, So-Fro Fabrics, County Seat, a pizza parlor, Carousel Hot Dogs, The Fast Foot, the obligatory Hallmark Card shop and Radio Shack stores (these two seem to be in every mall from Grand Opening to its death) and many other businesses of local, regional and national flavor.....nearly 40 tenants in all.

When I finally got out to the area and this mall in 1991, my inaugural visit would crack open one heck of a treasure chest of nostalgic, late 1960s contemporary mall architecture.

For starters, there are the anchor stores. Kohl's was the newest of the three, but having been built out of the old Murphy's store back in 1982-1983, the old scripted 'Kohl's' signature signage was still in use at the time, making the store rather ancient. It had two sets of checkout counters set up like in your typical discount set of eight at the front entry, another set of four or six at the mall entry.

Kohl's, however old it looked, was nothing compared to the 'rest' of the mall.

Sears and Penney’s both were still vintage-1969/1970 in their building style and signage. Penney's especially had me fooled.....being a two-level store, I thought the mall itself at first was also two floors. Alas I would find out that it was not later on> Staying outside, the Sears also still had its old script logos (used on various stores between the 1950s-early 1970s) intact against the building's beige-tan colored walls. Penney’s was this off-whitewash shade with brown brick vertical pinstripe (where support columns were), featuring large entryways with mannequin display windows at either side of the doors, and above the canopies, just simply 'Penney’s' in that cryptic font with its trademark blue 'P', following the trend of stores using 'shorthand' names back in those days..

I'll never forget the interiors of these stores, of which I got to Sears a few times, and Penney once in a 1994 visit. Sears was the usual trademark red-tan-white scheme that was used in the late 1960s/1970 to match the outside of the store. The mall entryway did have the mandatory display window off to the side of the wide opening into the mall concourse. A serif-style (I liken it to a variation on the 'Times-New Roman' font) "SEARS" sign in blue above.

The Penney store, however, was especially dated and thus, wholly vintage in design and it had this odd smell which still exists to this day....even with the building having been reconfigured and cut down to the ground floor for its current tenant, a Hobby Lobby. I can't describe it. Back during its days as Penney’s, for the interior, one found shades of tan and golden-yellow and brown for its color palette, with brown and wheat floor tiling. Carpets were rather unkept and torn in spots. An escalator bay sat dead-center of the store, perfume counters up front towards the mall entry. Maybe it was that perfume that gave me that nauseating aroma.

The mall interior itself also had that 'Melvin Simon' trademark stamped all over the place with its interior design. The two large courts (at Center / Penney’s and the South end / Kohl’s) were perimeter-windowed atriums (allowing in diffused sunlight) going up a good 25-30 feet clearance from floor-to-ceiling, but that was about the extent of skylights. The rest of the mall took on low ceilings with those old buzzing mercury-vapor light fixtures that gave the mall this awfully eerie blue-green tint when walking through at twilight. Flooring was stripped down....just plain linoleum tiling in shades of white, tan, orange and brown....the three latter colors going in any which way to create various geometric patterns. I don't know if it had fountains or not. If it did, they were already gone by 1991.

Oh yes, and don't forget the old storefronts. Plenty of those to go around too, but by my 1991 visit and onwards, storefronts have either started to get updated, or simply dry walled over as stores started to pull out, especially in the past decade. Despite this, there were a few that remained and haven't been updated until very recently one case (Waldenbooks)...not at all.

In 1995, Sears would finally undertake what 800 other existing stores did in that period. a multi-million dollar renovation program. The store was finally pulled out of its '1960s'-era color scheme and brought up to date with new paint, new carpet, and new exterior and interior signage. Only the floor tiling, ceiling tiles and light fixtures have been left intact.

Kohl's, likewise, did the do-over and threw on another 20,000 Sq Ft of space to up their total area to 90,000 Sq Ft. One entrance on the Erie Ave. side of the store, however, was sacrificed, leaving the store with only one exterior entry (facing Taylor Dr) and the interior mall entrance. A full top-to-bottom remodel of the store inside and out including modern logotypes was also completed at the turn of the 21st Century.

The 21st Century has been anything but kind to this mall.

Until recent times, Sheboygan was always a little behind in retail terms, despite having a population employed at rather lucrative workplaces (The Kohler Co, and Bemis among them). Folks who make the bucks here, and also those from Chicagoland who vacation in the Elkhart Lake area, usually shop in Chicago. The trouble with that is there's little revunue coming to the local business economy...this includes the mall. In turn, there's little interest from big name national retailers to locate there. For that reason and others I put forth below, the mall has always been a relic, has always played 'second fiddle' to sister mall (Forest Mall), and over the years, Simon never saw fit to put any remodeling program in place to retain business and keep the mall fresh looking. They basically opened it in 1970, and then stopped caring after that. While there was always lots of tenant turnover, its most consistent period of occupancy by tenants was probably in the 1980s-1990s, but it never could retain the national names for more than 10 years.

Atop this, you know what happens when a building, especially a mall, isn't maintained and renovated every 10-15 years. Things start to look run-down and the building's innards (electrical, HVAC, sound systems, plumbing, etc) begin to deteriorate.

Such is the case with Memorial Mall, which, among other things, its Penney’s anchor was cited as having problems with asbestos (I have yet to confirm's what I heard amongst the city's residents), but aside from that, just the dated nature of the building itself and the outright cost of a full remodel of the huge two-level box wasn't justifiable enough to stick around. Citing sluggish sales over the past few years, the age of the building they resided in, and a chain-wide downturn, JC Penney finally pulled the plug on their outdated store (retro-cryptic "Penney’s" signage included) Jan. 31, 2001. It was among a slate of 44 locations to go dark that year. This has proven to be a huge blow the mall can seem to never recover from.

While a Hobby Lobby since took over the first floor of the former anchor pad, it has done nothing to rejuvenate the mall.

Walgreen’s also pulled out around this time, and moved to a freestanding location nearby to allow for longer hours (usually 24 hours around-the-clock operation) and a drive-thru pharmacy. All pharmacies have been phasing out their outdated 'mall variety store' formats anyhow, so this was bound to happen.

More issues with the mall's infrastructure continued to crop up, tenants continued their exodus as long-term leases expired, and eventually, Simon themselves saw no reason to keep running the mall which, I can only guess, was becoming too costly to maintain. In January 2003, they sold the mall to financial firm, Bayveiw Financial Corp. of Florida for an undisclosed amount.

Bayview went ahead and poured upwards of $10-15 million to FINALLY do-over the mall from top to bottom. New carpet was laid over the old linoleum tiles, new ceilings were put in place with new, more energy-efficient lighting fixtures, a new graphics and sign package (including a new mall logotype), and all empty storefronts were dry walled over so things would look more uniform, like how a mall looks when first opened and still having empty space for lease. This remodel, the malls first in its over-35 year tenure, was completed in 2004.

Since then, Bed Bath & Beyond took a good 20,000 Sq Ft of southeast inline space, tacked on another 5,000 to the east side of the building for a new front entrance, and opened in Spring of last year.

Other than those two major projects, nothing else has been done. Even the Walden's still resides, tucked away in its dark corner adjacent to Sears, still bearing its mid-1970s bow-windowed storefront. All other stores..the few that remain, have either been shut and drywalled over, or have been remodeled.

None of the work done to the mall in recent years has saved it. Tenants have still been pulling out to this day. The building is all up to code now and there seems to be no issues with the aforementioned asbestos. The Taylor Drive retail corridor has been losing business over the past five years especially. Mostly due in part to:

Two Wal-Mart Supercenters within a 10-mile radius of the mall. A third Wal-Mart Supercenter is 15 minutes away in the city of Plymouth

A new mall (a 'big box' strip-center mind you...still the flavor of the day in retail) Deer Trace Shopping Center, at the outskirts of Kohler WI, started in 2003 just south of the Mall. It has a dedicated exit off of I-43, boasting half of Memorial Mall's former tenants (they all jumped ship to Deer Trace as it was being completed in phases), and anchored by Home Depot, Elder Beerman, Target, and Best Buy.

The North-side Wal-Mart Supercenter is the main anchor to another new planned retail development in the Town of Howard's Grove. It will also feature a new Menards (an Eau Claire WI-based home improvement chain) as well as LaCrosse WI-based Festival Foods

The overall decay of the Taylor Drive corridor. Several other shopping centers exist on this drag with Memorial Mall, and all have gaping vacancies were former anchor stores once were. They have not been refilled since.

Downtown still thrives to this day (after a short-lived dip in business in the 1970s-1980s) with boutique-type shops, many restaurants and taverns, a few banks, and of course, Younkers' flagship store.

The dwindling amount of retailers who want to locate in an enclosed shopping center (this is more or less a nationwide trend not limited to Sheboygan).

The mall has also been through a few owners and several leasing groups already since Simon gave up on the mall in 2003. Its current leasing / management team is Jones Lang LaSalle, its owners are a private firm based out-of-state. Not the absolute best combination to keep a mall alive.

This is a mall I've been keeping up with since 1991, and frankly is probably on its last breath of life. It's no more than 50% occupied, (35-40% if you take away the anchor stores). While I did enjoy seeing it the way it looked pre-renovation (being the retro-mall nut that I am), I knew that if the mall didn't update right then and there, it would start to lose shoppers, then tenants in due time. With all the updating that has been done, especially to the mall interiors, it would be a shame, and a complete waste of money to have done all that work for nothing. It just needs folks with strong backgrounds in marketing and demographics knowledge of the area to pull it off.

There is a glimmer of hope. The city just had a meeting recently with an outside firm to develop a 'master plan' for the ailing retail strip, Memorial Mall included, but it remains to be seen whether it's taken into action.

Hopefully something can be done to draw interested tenants and customers back. Time will tell.

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