Michael Winford's Commentary

Posted April 24, 2011 (user submitted March 14, 2011)

The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor Michigan opened in October 1979. The mall was built on the site of a former apple orchard, therefore giving it it's name, "The Orchards Mall".The location of The Orchards Mall is located less than a mile from Interstate 94. In 1979, when the mall opened most of the area surrounding the mall was vacant or farmland. Benton Harbor is loacted next to the prominent town of St. Joseph, home of The Whirlpool Corporation. Prior to the opening of The Orchards Mall, locals from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph shopped at the Fairplain Plaza. The plaza was located less than a mile away from The Orchards Mall. The Fairplain Plaza was the usual open air plaza of the 60's/70's era. When The Orchards Mall opened the Plaza was still doing decent, but past it's prime. The plaza featured a Woolworth, Goldblats, as well as a Kroger grocery store, Rite Aid Drug store, a five screen cinema, and a Big Boy restaurant. A good handful of merchants made the move from the plaza to the mall. Other merchants would continue to move from the plaza to the mall in the years to come, leaving the plaza to become a ghost town by the late 1980's. When the mall opened it featured three anchor stores J.C. Penny, Sears and Walgreen's. J.C. Penny and Sears both moved from their downtown Benton Harbor locations. Downtown Benton Harbor had been seeing some large economic decline for sometime. Also located in the mall was York Steakhouse along with approximately 10 food outlets in the food court. Adjacent to the food court was an arcade.

The Orchards Mall has always been a mid scale mall, nothing too fancy. No fountains or marble, only one story, it does however feature a few skylights thruout the mall. The mall used to have quite a bit of live plants and trees indoors, but over the years they have all disappeared most likely due to cost cutting measures. There's only four entrances that lead directly into the mall, with about 60 to 70 retail spaces. The Orchards mall has always featured a food court, something that didn't become common in malls until the 1980's. The mall's color scheme was the typical 70's/80's brown and orange I remember my parents taking my brother and I there quite often, especially during back to school time and Christmas. I remember the shiny brown tile on the floor and the orange fabric on the benches. There was also something like a dugout in front of J.C. Penny. This was always a fun place to play as a kid. This dugout area was where they would have special events such as Santa at Christmas time. The mall remained quite busy thru out the 1980's. The closest malls are the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, IN located about 40 miles southwest and Crossroads Mall located in Portage, MI about 47 miles east of Benton Harbor. With both of the other malls being so far away, they were not too much of a threat. By the late 1980's the poverty and crime from downtown Benton Harbor started to carry over into the area of the mall. It didn't become a major problem until the mid to late 1990's when things really started to take a turn for the worst.

Over the years The mall featured many stores including Gap,County Seat, The Hang Up, Baker Shoes, Fox Jewelers, Carlton Cards, Glamour Shots, Card America, Hallmark, Chess King, Kinney Shoe store, Famous Foot ware, So Fro Fabrics, Jean Nicole, Lerner New York, Banner Books, Foot Locker, Spencer's, Recordtown, Camelot, FYE, Imperial Sports, Hickory Farms, K B Toys, Gordon's Jewelry Store, The Original Cookie, Sherman's Ice Cream, Afterthoughts, Command Performance, Regis, Candy Candy, Foxmoore, Richman's, Gem Dandy's,Casual Corner, Shoe Sensation, Factory Brand Shoes, Thom McAn Shoes, The Buckle, Radio Shack, The Great Steak and Potato Company, and Subway.

York Steakhouse went out of business in the mid to late 1980's. That location sat empty until around 1990 when Bonanza filled that spot. A year or two later Bonanza changed it's name to Ponderosa Steakhouse. Ponderosa stuck around until the mid 1990's when they closed their doors. Walgreen's moved out of the mall in the early 90's when they built a bigger location about a 1/4 mile down the road from the mall. The former Walgreen's location remained vacant for quite a few years. In the early 1990's a few empty store fronts became visible, but the mall was still running at least at a 70/80 percent occupancy rate.

A little hope for the mall came when Elder Beerman Department store announced plans to build a department store connecting to the mall. Some said Elder Beerman was a bit too upscale for the mall while others were happy to see a third anchor store moving in. The Elder Beerman store opened in the fall of 1992. The store was much nicer than the J.C. Penny and Sears at Orchards Mall as well as a little bit pricier than the two other anchor stores. Prior to the opening of the Elder Beerman store the mall underwent a major renovation. The mall was completely re tiled in white, mauve, and teal flooring. The dugout areas were filled in to be made level with the rest of the mall's surface. All the orange fabric benches were removed, and were replaced with oak benches. Palm trees were placed thru out the mall and new tables and chairs were put in the food court. With the remodel complete and 3 anchor stores in the mall it seemed the Orchards Mall was making a bit of a come back, which only lasted for a few years.

By the mid to late 1990's the crime and poverty from downtown made it's way into the area of the mall. Robberies in surrounding businesses drove away customers. The Aldi store located on an out lot near the mall was robbed at gun point as well as the murder of the manager at Red Lobster located in an out lot right in front of J.C. Penny. Needless to say shortly after the murder at Red Lobster, Darden the parent company of RL chose to close this location leaving the building empty. All of this was not good business for the mall, many shoppers started driving to the two other malls which were a little ways away but were in better areas, with more stores to offer. There were also a few reports of muggings of mall shoppers in the parking lot. The 3 anchor stores remained thru the 1990's but many of the smaller stores in the mall closed their doors

By 2000 the mall was only running at about a 50% occupancy rate, most of the national chains within the mall had closed their doors for good. With the exception of Bath and Body Works opening up in the mall around the mid 2000's. In the late 2000's Jo Ann fabrics moved into the mall, in the former Walgreen's space as well as overflowing into a few of the neighboring vacant stores.It took the mall nearly 15 to 20 years to fill the former Walgreen's location. For a brief time, The Orchards Mall boasted 4 anchor stores although many of the stores in the mall remained vacant.

In 2009 Sears announced they would not be renewing their lease and closed their doors leaving the mall back to only 3 anchor stores. The owner of the Sears building was a different owner than the rest of the mall. The owner of the former Sears building decided to donate the building to a local church. The owners of the mall tried to fight it, but they lost the fight and the building was awarded to the church. With this being said it leaves no hope for the mall to attract another anchor store to that location. The Sears optical and driving school still remain but they moved into empty stores in the mall near J.C. Penny.

The Buckle closed their doors in January 2010 as well as B. Dalton bookstore. As of now, February 2011 the 3 anchor stores still remain. J.C. Penny is in desperate need of updating, dirty carpet that looks worn out in spots, mismatched linoleum that looks like it has been there since the early 1990's. Elder Beerman isn't as bad as Penny's but still could use a little TLC, still kind of looks the 90's decor inside. Also the decor in the mall continues to show it's age with a bland color scheme from the 1990's, all of the live plants are gone, and some of the oak benches look like they have seen better days. The Orchards Mall has not seen any updating in almost two decades. The food court is a very sad site with only one food outlet remaining a small independent Mexican restaurant and some vending machines placed in front of the former Sherman's ice cream location. Most of the tables and chairs have been removed, since they are no longer needed. Beyond the 3 remaining national brand anchor stores the national chains that are still currently located inside the mall are AT&T, GNC, Payless Shoe source, The Finish Line, Bath and Body Works, Rainbow Fashions, Clarie's, Deb, Zale's, and Man Alive. I believe this mall was one of the first locations for The Man Alive men's store chain. That most likely explains why they are still open at this location. Most of the mall store fronts are empty and a handful of the empty locations are now spaces for non for profit organizations to raise awareness for their cause. There is also a few independent retailers in the mall such as a travel agency, a nail boutique, a store called This N That, a store called Odds and Ends, and a cowboy/leather store called Off the Edge. Just to give you an idea of what type of interesting independent stores this mall has to offer.

I very rarely go to this mall anymore due to the lack of what they have to offer. I drive about 47 miles in the opposite direction near Kalamazoo to The Crossroads Mall located in Portage, Michigan. I did however make a trip to the Orchards Mall yesterday and that is when the current pictures were taken. It's sad to see this mall die such a slow and pain full death wish there was some type of redevelopment plan in the works but, no word of that. The future of the mall doesn't look to bright, with the poverty and crime levels still somewhat high for the Benton Harbor area. Michigan also ranks one the highest unemployment rates in the nation.I figure they will just let the mall continue to die with it's empty store fronts and 1990's decor, sad but true. As for J.C. Penny, Elder Beerman, and Jo Ann Fabrics I don't see them putting much money into these stores in the near future. On the same note if it wasn't for these 3 anchor stores I believe this mall would have been closed a long time ago. Lucky for the mall these 3 anchor stores still remain but, who knows for how long.

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