Clark County leaders seek to reimagine Upper Valley Mall, a once bustling regional retail hub

The mall, owned by Clark County, will close June 16.

The Upper Valley Mall survived for decades but could not overcome changes in shoppers’ habits and the loss of major anchor stores that brought in traffic for themselves and other stores.

Now county leaders are trying to determine what’s next for sprawling property in German Twp.

“Over time our shopping habits have changed and we no longer have a need for large retail malls. You’ve seen this happen all across American and this is no different,” President and CEO of the Greater Springfield Partnership Mike McDorman said.

McDorman said the Greater Springfield Partnership has worked hand-in-hand with the county for years in an attempt to bring traffic and potential developers to the mall, but unfortunately, nothing panned out.

“Moving forward, we are going to have to reimagine what compliments that area,” McDorman said. “We need to spend some time working on a plan on what that could look like.”

The Springfield News-Sun reached out to Clark County Economic Development Coordinator Alex Dietz about the future of the county’s economy with the loss of the mall and what’s next for the property for this story but was told the county had no comment.

Last week, Board of Clark County Commissioners President Melanie Flax Wilt said the property could be marketed as anything from a “mixed-use” building to something industrial.

“Our analysis tells us now that (the mall) would be a lot better contributor to the economy and provide a lot more jobs for people in our community in a different use,” Flax Wilt said.

McDorman said he could see the building becoming a potential Amazon distribution center, communication center “or something along the lines of that.”

“It’s got great bones. It’s got great retail around it. It’s in a great corridor, but you can’t just have retail by itself. It needs to a mixed-used plan, that means there needs to be housing, restaurants, entertainment or sports,” McDorman said.

Failed plans

Clark County officials announced this month that the Upper Valley Mall would be closing to the public on June 16.

The commission and the Clark County Land Reutilization Corporation, otherwise known as the Land Bank, made the decision to explore other opportunities for the property due to the loss of anchor tenants over the last decade.

The Land Bank purchased 40 acres of property at the Upper Valley Mall for about $3 million in 2018.

At the time, the county’s plan was to hold onto the property for about two to three months as a tentative agreement with a private developer was finalized, the county’s former community and economic development director said at the time.

But Flax Wilt said that deal fell through, and since then the Land Bank and the county has struggled to redevelop the property and sunk $500,000, in addition to the $3 million, in the property in the last three years.

“This wasn’t what we planned for. We weren’t expecting any of this,” Flax Wilt said.

Opened in 1971, the mall was a hub of retail in Clark County for decades but has watched as longtime anchors like JCPenney, Sears, Macy’s, along with numerous smaller chains, have closed.

Macy’s was the mall’s first anchor store to pack up. The business closed its doors in 2015. A year later, the county purchased the building for $200,000 “for tax purposes,” Former Commissioner John Detrick said at the time.

The space remains empty.

JCPenney was next in line, officially closing in 2016. The closure was the end of the retailer’s more than decades-old presence in the county.

The JCPenney space is now being used by the Clark County Combined Health District as a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site. Prior to that, it was sitting empty.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Sears announced in December 2018 it would close. The department store officially left Clark County for good the following March.

Victoria’s Secret was the most recent big-name retailer to leave, announcing in early January 2020 that the store would close before the month’s end.

The mall now has 13 tenants, which include some chain storefronts like Bath & Body Works and Spencer’s Gift, and also some local fronts like Emporium, an antique and consignment store.

Donald Peters, who has owned Emporium with his wife since 2017, said he feels the Land Bank and the county gave up on development at the mall long ago.

“They say they can’t get anyone to come in here and start a business, but I know people who have tried to call the Land Bank and talk about the opportunity to open something but they weren’t called back,” Peters said.

Other community members, like Springfield resident Thomas Billing, said the county’s decision to close the mall is “sad but very understandable.”

“It was a top mall in 1980′s and people came here from miles around to shop, it’s not that anymore,” Billing said.

Other malls have faced much the same in parts of southern Ohio.

In 2006, the Salem Mall in Trotwood was closed and later demolished after a slow decline, and the loss of two of its anchor tenants JCPenney and Lazarus. The mall opened in 1966 and housed 91 stores at its peak.

The City of Trotwood hoped to redevelop or repurpose the property, much like Clark County plans to do with the Upper Valley Mall, but the city still owns the vacant land where the mall used to sit.

In March, 40 undergraduate students from Ohio State University and the Trotwood Community Improvement Corporation started interviewing business owners and community members about suggestions for redevelopment.

In Miami County, JCPenney announced it would leave Miami Valley Centre Mall in Piqua in June 2020. It was the third anchor tenant in the past three years to leave the property.

With another anchor store’s departure, city officials said they were worried about what the loss might mean for the mall.

Kathy Sherman president of the Piqua Area Chamber of Commerce said at the time that the departure of JCPenney is a loss for the community as well as the mall.

“It saddens me to lose anything in Piqua,” Sherman said.

The space still hasn’t been filled nearly a year later.

Big dreams

With its closure, Clark County residents in search of a mall will now have to travel to the Mall at Fairfield Commons in Beavercreek.

The Mall at Fairfield Commons is among the few remaining active malls in the area, in part due to the property’s ability to attract new tenants after other anchors left.

When big-name anchor tenants like Sears and Elder-Beerman left the Mall at Fairfield Commons, they were quickly replaced by Round1 Entertainment and Morris Furniture, Randy Burkett, Beavercreek’s city planning and development told the Dayton Daily News last month.

“Within the last 10 years, investment in the mall, multimillion-dollar investments in the restaurants, in the new entryway, tells us that there’s still plenty of economic viability left in the mall and we anticipate that for many, many years to come,” Burkett said.

Shopping malls in Ohio, much like their counterparts nationwide, are split into two areas with no middle ground, Loren DeFilippo, director of research for the Ohio division of global commercial real estate services company Colliers International said.

“They’re either doing pretty well like some of the Class A locations, like Kenwood Towne Centre, for example, in Cincinnati, or they are pretty much deserted and probably many of them primed up for conversion to some other use like Amazon did in Cleveland with a few of the malls they tore down up there and built distribution centers,” DeFilippo said.

The hope of new life coming to the Upper Valley Mall took over social media about two years ago after Home Plate Sports Academy published a now-viral Facebook post in February 2019 stating they had spoken with “new owners” of the mall and a sports complex was coming to the shopping center.

“The mall will be a multipurpose sports complex for soccer, baseball, pickleball, basketball, go-karts, volleyball and competitions for various things,” the post said. “Launch trampoline center, movie theater, restaurants, hotels are all coming and much more!

The following month, the speculation around the sports complex grew after Northwestern Local Schools spoke about the potential sports complex at a public school board meeting.

Superintendent Jesse Steiner said at the time getting involved with the complex could benefit the district.

“The entire project is, I’m being told, a $56 million project. It’s a huge project,” Steiner said at the meeting. “They are expecting to bring in over 400 jobs. This has the potential to change our community, our schools, to change this part of Ohio.”

The school board voted unanimously in favor of authorizing Steiner and Northwestern’s treasurer to engage in “serious communication” with the sport’s complex’s owners.

Steiner said that vote was nothing more than a vote of support for the project, and that negotiation with the mystery sports complex buyer never happened.

Clark County officials have never commented on the possibility of a sports complex, or any other development at the property, only stating they are, “always engaged in negotiations.”

Staff writer Eric Schwartzberg contributed to this report

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