BELOIT MALL / PLAZA: BELOIT, WI
Mary Brady's Commentary:
Posted January 18, 2019 (user submitted August 5, 2018)
Memories of Beloit Mall
I'm old enough to reserve my primary retail nostalgia not for any mall, but for the old downtown department stores they replaced. In Beloit, that would include Chester's, McNeany's and Clara Stone's. In Chicago, Marshall Field's. Some of these structures may remain, and along with them fond memories, but it's the ghosts of past mall workers I find most worthy of revisiting. That said, I have a fair number of particularly intense memories of working as a teenager in the Beloit Mall when it was still new & shiny, circa 1969. These memories don't involve bricks and mortar much - just human flesh and blood.
Despite the unforgettable, maddening repitition of "Obladi, Oblada" and the boredom of retail clerking, I have fond memories of my time as a Sears saleslady. And a lifelong loyalty to the brand.
After a season dipping cones and serving dogs and babies free samples of soft serve custard at the Dairy Queen down the street, I landed a job in Sears Women's Department, with a substantial raise. (I think Sears' hourly rate back then was under $1.50) Led by the remarkably capable and humane management exercised by a tall Mormon woman named Gerri Moore, saleslady Sadie Bell and I faithfully practiced Sears' primary directive - "The customer is always right". Given their example, and without any "diversity training" at all, I acquired respect for a broad swath of working women, shopping Beloitians and the wisdom of Sears' corporate ethics.
When Size 44 dresses were returned on Monday mornings with underarm stains from Saturday's exertions, we cheerfully refunded or exchanged the goods, no questions asked, no smirks allowed. If Sadie Bell, a tall, thin, elegant Black woman formerly employed at the exclusive Clara Stone women's dress shop, had reservations about this policy or the customer, she never allowed them to show - certainly never to the customer and only with great subtlety to her colleagues. Sadie's time spent in the civil rights movement down South had quite probably cost her the tony boutique job. She never let it cost her a truly high-class demeanor. Situated between these two titans of retail, I learned a lot about corporate ethics, salesmanship, management and compassion. I probably didn't fully appreciate it at the time, but in retrospect they were amazing role models. My next two jobs, as a "mother's helper" for a wealthy Highland Park family and then as a line worker at the local Frito-Lay factory, would be rather less imbued with lofty corporate ideals, but more instructive in the realm of class distinctions and non-union labor politics. No one I met at either place remained as upright and awe-inspiring as mall colleagues Gerri and Sadie, however.
Another anchor store at the Beloit Mall, the Kohl's grocery store was fancier than the competing Piggly Wiggly or locally-owned Salamone's, and thus became the first place we took a visiting Hungarian relative to display the bounty of the American grocery shopping experience. A farmer at home, she didn't get past the produce section before breaking into tears. Loud, noisy, embarrassing and (to us) surprising tears - a display that needed little explanation. I've never forgotten it.
Situated across the road from the mall, Copp's was the first of the big box stores to encroach on the mall's turf. I remember the distain with which it's cheaper goods and display were regarded, back in the day. Of course, that was a time when store brands reliably indicated a certain level of quality. J.C. Penney was the standard-bearer, and Marshall Fields, of course, purveyed the highest quality goods.
Stephen Craane's Commentary:
Posted July 8, 2003 (user submitted)
Hero To Zero In Ten Years
When Beloit Mall was originally built as the open-air Beloit Plaza in 1964,
it had the market pretty much to itself. Set on a high profile, thirty-acre
site on a bluff overlooking Riverside Drive (US Highway 51) and the Rock River,
the 400,000 square foot Beloit Plaza was the first major shopping center in
Rock County. While the location caused some difficulties placing entry points
to the parking lot, and open-air malls were something of a hard sell in a northern
state like Wisconsin, Beloit Plaza overcame its shortcommings through a broad
array of strong tenants. Indeed, when it opened in 1966, Beloit Plaza could
boast three major department stores and three other anchor-quality tenants:
- Sears (one story, with attached Auto Center)
- JC Penney (one story)
- Charles V. Weise (two stories; a branch of an old-line Rockford (IL) department store, owned by Bergner's)
- Kohl's Supermarket (a Wisconsin-based supermarket chain)
- Woolworth's (the sixth-largest store in the chain)
In addition to its anchors, Beloit Plaza had a variety of primary tenants (including
Fannie May, Fashion Bug, Hallmark, and Radio Shack), two banks on outparcels,
a location in the heart of Beloit, and a hub for the city's bus lines. While
the mall's architecture was the basic 1960s nondescript big-bland-brick-boxes,
Kohl's did feature a reduced form of the chain's trademark arch façade
(still seen at some existing older Kohl's Supermarkets). With no competition
in the county—and little competition in nearby counties—Beloit Plaza
was riding high.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, though, three changes in the landscape would eventually doom Beloit Plaza:
- The construction of Interstate 90 three miles east of Beloit Plaza, which drew away much of the north-south traffic from US 51.
- The construction of enclosed malls in major cities around Beloit, such as Madison and Rockford.
- The 1975 opening of the 500,000 square foot enclosed Janesville Mall, located
thirteen miles from Beloit Plaza in Janesville, the seat of Rock County. It
boasted three anchors—JC Penney, Charles V. Weise, and Montgomery Ward—two
of which were also at Beloit Plaza. It enjoyed a prime location on Janesville's
main commercial street, Milton Avenue (US Highway 26), within a mile of I-90
and the busy intersection of US Highways 14 & 26. More than the other,
more distant malls, Janesville Mall would seal Beloit Mall's doom.
Due to the drop in nearby traffic, competition from nearby enclosed malls, and a general contraction of the city's large industrial base (with resultant loss of jobs), patronage at Beloit Plaza began to fall. Though several of the secondary stores departed, the anchors stood firm. Reasoning that some of these losses were due to operating an open-air mall in a cold state, Beloit Plaza management finally enclosed the shopping center in the early 1980s. The dark and low-ceilinged (16' ceilings) layout retained the wide common areas of the open-air mall, but added only a few new storefronts. Unfortunately, this would also be the last major remodeling Beloit Mall would ever receive.
As the area around Beloit Mall declined (due to the loss of jobs), foot traffic at the Mall declined further. Indeed, it became something of a hangout for teens and "the criminal element". Then, on February 2, 1981, Raymond Lee Stewart robbed the Beloit Plaza Radio Shack at gunpoint, killing the manager and a customer before he left. Beloit Plaza acquired a reputation as an unsafe place, further diverting shoppers away from the Mall.
Changes in the retail environment beyond Beloit also occurred in the 1980s.
Following the merger of Bergner's and Myers that formed P.A. Bergner & Co.
in 1982, and the new company's purchase of the Boston Store chain in 1985, the
Charles V. Weise stores were renamed. The Beloit Mall store became a Bergner's;
similarly, the Janesville Mall store became a Boston Store. Shortly thereafter,
Beloit Plaza was renamed Beloit Mall to reflect its newly-enclosed status. But
more importantly, in Janesville, the intersection of US Highways 14 & 26
(just blocks from the Janesville Mall) became a hotbed of big-box development,
attracting Wal-Mart, Target, ShopKo, K-Mart, and Blain's Farm & Fleet (a
countrified version of Wal-Mart, emphasizing goods for farmers). Due to the
factors noted above, Beloit Mall was seeing little development in its general
area. (A section of the Mall's property was declared a "brownfield"
due to the presence of foundry sand, further hampering efforts.) Consequently,
most of the county's shopping dollars started traveling from Beloit to Janesville.
Still, the Beloit Mall soldiered on.
The 1990s, however, would be less kind to Beloit Mall. In addition to near-stagnant local population growth, a series of defections and business problems would crush the mall:
- 1991: P.A. Bergner & Co. declares bankruptcy.
- 1992: As part of the re-organization of P.A. Bergner & Co., the Bergner's at Beloit Mall is shuttered. No tenant for the building can be found.
- 1993: Fearing that Beloit Mall would become a "Ghost Mall", the City of Beloit pays $4.5 million to cash-strapped developer Dorchester Corporation of Canada to become part owner of the Mall and keep it open. Technically, the city gets 54% of the Mall (mainly the land, less the "brownfield"), while Dorchester retains 46% (the Mall buildings). The hope was that the money would be repaid in taxes and loan repayments. (It never happened.) The City of Beloit then attracts small-market, mid-priced department store chain Elder-Beerman to the Mall. Elder-Beerman razes the Weise/Bergner's building and builds a sprawling new 62,732 sq. ft. one-story building; unfortunately, the size of the new building disrupts traffic around the mall. Although the new store draws some shoppers to Beloit (no other mall in Wisconsin had an Elder-Beerman), foot traffic in the mall continues to suffer.
- 1993 - 1994: Kohl's and Woolworth's close. The M&I Bank branch closes, and the Girl Scouts lease part of the building.
- 1995: Elder-Beerman declares bankruptcy. The Beloit Mall store, however, remains open.
- 1996: While the anchors of the Janesville Mall (JC Penney, Kohl's Department Store (which took over the Montgomery Ward lot when Ward's left), and Boston Store) are doing well, the mall itself is suffering a high rate of vacancies, especially in its' JC Penney wing. Meanwhile, the Beloit Sears has become incredibly cramped, with no room to expand. Janesville Mall management approaches Sears and makes them an unbeatable offer: space at Janesville Mall's main entrance to build a new, larger store; an outparcel for a detached Auto Center; and various financial incentives. Sears officials jump at the chance, and the "move" from Beloit Mall to Janesville Mall is announced.
- 1997: Despite letter writing campaigns and petition drives, Sears closes its' Beloit Mall store and opens its' new two-story showplace at Janesville Mall. Secondary stores begin leaving Beloit Mall. JC Penney is robbed at gunpoint. Quest Real Estate Partners buys Dorchester Corporation of Canada's share of Beloit Mall. Elder-Beerman emerges from bankruptcy.
- 1998: JC Penney closes. The rush to the exit becomes a stampede; even secondary stores become few and far between. A mom-and-pop pager company occupies Fannie May's large candy counter facing the center court. A trio of developers (including the principals of Quest) buys the city's share of Beloit Mall for $1.2 million and TIF financing.
- 2000: Walgreen's and Radio Shack close. Shortly thereafter, the few remaining mall tenants leave, and the Mall (with the exception of the Elder-Beerman store) is sealed. The University of Wisconsin acquires the M&I Bank branch property.
The Mall still stands, but it's but a shell of what it once was. Elder-Beerman
remains, but it's questionable how much longer they'll stay. Elder-Beerman has
had the right to leave ever since Sears left, but pledged to stay on in 1997;
however, foot traffic in the store has dropped dramatically since the Mall closed,
leaving the store nearly vacant but for the waiting cashiers. Additionally,
the Elder-Beerman suffers from a poor location in the Mall. As a one story building
at the rear of the Mall (not facing any street), you would never know the store
was there unless you had previous knowledge that it existed. A community health
center opened up in former mall space in 2000, but with an entry facing the
Elder-Beerman lot instead of the Mall. Occasionally, the empty anchors are used
as convention halls, such as a recent Senior Fair which used the vacant JC Penney
Building. Buses still serve the Mall, but mainly as a transfer point.
Many plans have been presented for redeveloping the Beloit Mall, including
a community center, police station, library, conference center, and an Indian
casino. A mixed-use proposal (similar to the Cinderella City redevelopment in
Colorado), which would retain the Elder-Beerman store and place new development
(residential/office/retail/light industrial) around it, has also been suggested.
However, none of these plans have borne any fruit. Meanwhile, most shopping
dollars in Beloit are now spent near where I-90 meets I-43, since a Wal-Mart
Supercenter and a strip mall anchored by Staples sprung up there recently. Back
by the banks of the Rock River, the Beloit Mall waits on.
Bing Bird's Eye View:
The Beloit Mall from a satellite in space