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               CITY CENTRE MART: MIDDLETOWN, OH

Dennis Creech's Commentary

Posted April 24, 2011 (user submitted July 31, 2006)

A BIT OF BACKGROUND:

Middletown, Ohio was first settled in 1791. Many locals incorrectly believe that it was so named because it is -more or less- midway between Cincinnati (to the south) and Dayton (to the north). In fact, it was named "Middletown" due to its location at the middle of the farthest navicable point on the Miami River...travelling north from where it enters the Ohio River.

The downtown business district of this city of 52,000 was, for years, the primary shopping destination for the entire region. It was said that one could find most anything they could ever want to buy within the four blocks of stores where Central Avenue and Broad Streets intersected. This started to change in October of 1958, when the MIDDLETOWN SHOPPING CENTER opened, in the city's eastern environs. In an attempt to stop this retail store exodus out from downtown, the city government formulated a plan to close off the central business district along Central and Broad, and build an enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall, complete with an all-new, multi-level parking garage.

This concept was based on such downtown shopping mall redevelopments as Kalamazoo, Michigan's BURDICK MALL and Rochester, New York's MIDTOWN PLAZA. Plans were approved by city commissioners in December of 1968. Ground was broken for Middletown's CITY CENTRE MART in April of 1973. Federal "revenue sharing" grants, a hallmark of the Nixon Administration, were the basis of funding for the 30 million dollar project.

By the summer of 1973, the downtown area was akin to a battle zone. The two central streets were excavated, pedestrian access to existing stores was made nearly impossible, and more than a bit dangerous. Several local businesses along the future mall corridors were soon OUT of business. To add insult to injury, what could have served as the mall's three anchor stores closed up shop as well. The Central Store, a Middletown-based retailer, Mabley And Carew (a branch of a Cincinnati chain) and J.C. Penney all closed their doors immediately before, or soon after, the destruction / construction began. The local Sears outlet, not located within the mall-to-be, but a few doors down from one of it's prospective entrances, relocated out of town.

After over two years of heavy construction, and with many of its prospective tenants (by then) gone, the CITY CENTRE MART was dedicated in November, 1975. The death knel rang for sure when, in February, 1977, the newly-built TOWNE MALL opened its doors. It was only four miles from the CITY CENTRE, had over 3,300 parking spaces and was conveniently located adjacent to Interstate 75. Most all commerce in Middletown was moving to the east, near the new TOWNE MALL. Nothing could stop this trend.

And so, the CITY CENTRE MART never lived up to the grandiose plan envisioned in 1968. Enjoying a passable 85% occupancy in its early years, it quickly became something of a "ghost mall", populated by abandoned, boarded up, cordoned-off store fronts. A quiet, deserted atmosphere pervaded on the inside, where there should have been noise and bustling commerce. It was a prime example of something being built in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Efforts to recruit new tenants never really worked out. A name change, in the early 1980's, to the "CITY CENTRE MALL" didn't change anything, either. Eventually, the City Of Middletown was faced with the problem of maintaining a nearly deserted inner city mall. Annual upkeep on the aging structure was hitting the $500,000 mark by the late 1990's, and the mall was also badly in need of repairs. Something had to be done. A new "Downtown Redevelopment Plan", which proposed the removal of the enclosed mall corridors and some adjacent structures, gained momentum.

It came to pass that, by the turn of the century, the mall had outlived its usefullness, as if it ever even had one to begin with. The wrecking ball was brought in in July, 2001, and in December, 2002 , a "new downtown Middletown" was dedicated. The MART / MALL had been erased from the landscape, with only the parking garage remaining. One could, again, drive clear through from Verity Parkway, west, to Main Street.......Central Avenue and Broad Streets were returned to their pre-1973 state!

The demolition of the mall (and replacement of store fronts and streets), required some 13 million dollars in city, county and state funds. The "Feds", who had provided the bulk of the 30 million dollars to build the structure, were not helping -this time around- to get rid of it.

THE MALL THAT NEVER -REALLY- WAS:

I was born and raised in Middletown, Ohio. I fondly remember weekend trips to the G.C. Murphy store, smack dab in the middle of Middletown. My family used to frequent J.C. Penney and the Central Store, that were downtown stores also thriving in those days. This was in the early to mid-1960's, before the powers that be in M'town developed plans for the (ill-fated) CITY CENTRE MART, or previous to the building of the super-regional, mega- DAYTON -MALL, thirteen miles away.

The writing was on the wall even as early as 1970, when I first saw an artist's sketch of the proposed CITY CENTRE MART, in the Middletown Journal. It sure looked groovy enough. But, as 1973 rolled around, and work started on the new downtown shopping mall, we all wondered how the businesses along the proposed mall corridors (on Central Avenue and Broad Street) were ever going to survive the construction choas. As I wrote in the segment above, most of them didn't.

My grandfather and I walked through the construction zone in the summer of 1973, to take care of some business. His eyesight wasn't all that good, and he nearly fell into ditches and excavations several times. I had to help him along, but we finally emerged at Central and Verity Parkway unscathed. The place was quite a mess! No wonder most everyone avoided downtown Middletown in those days! The problem was, after the fabulous, climate-controlled mall opened in 1975, people KEPT ON avoiding downtown Middletown.

I must confess that, just to look at it, it was quite attractive, as early 70's-styled shopping malls went. There was a really nice fountain in the atrium, which cycled huge sprays of water on a timed basis. It was a comfortable, attractive environment, but there were just NO stores.....only spaces along the corridors where they could have been built. An all-new Swallen's (a big Cincinnati chain) did open a new store in the MART in the early 1980's...but this wasn't enough to attract many prospective mall shoppers. Moreover, there were few, if any, places to get something to eat.....there just wasn't much of anything.....except the empty shopping center.

It was as quiet and peaceful as a tomb, the first time I ever visited the completed MART in 1975. It was even more dead the last time I ever went there, in 1992.

So, they finally gave up on the idea of a downtown shopping mall in the early 2000's. It was a bizarre feeling to return to Middletown, after many, many years, and -once again- be able to drive down Central Avenue, as I did in June of 2005. I must confess that the (old) "new downtown Middletown" did not look all that prosperous.....even with the attractive new sidewalks and storefronts. Most of these appeared as empty as had the CITY CENTRE MART.

SOURCES FOR "A BIT OF BACKGROUND":

Personal recollections of myself

"w.w.w. lanepl.org" website

The Cincinnati Enquirer / "City Centre Prospects Debated" article / Janet C. Wetzel, correspondant / Thursday, March 4, 1999

The Cincinnati Enquirer / "City Centre Estimate: 10.3 M" article / Janet C. Wetzel, correspondant / Saturday, September 11, 1999

The Cincinnati Enquirer / "Leaders Hope Mall Has Life" article / Michael D. Clark, correspondant / Wednesday, April 11. 2001

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