Ken Allan's Commentary:

Posted April 1, 2005 (user submitted)

Manalapan Mall opened what was supposed to be it's first phase in 1973. Locally Asbury Park based Steinbach was recently aquired by the Supermarkets General Corporation (SGC), and one of Steinbach's goals was to use the deep pockets of it's new owner to expand into the growing regions of the NJ Shore market. The Mall property was close to 100 acres, and was right along the major highway that served (and still serves) this area, Route 9. The mall started with Steinbach as the anchor and a small one level mall with about 25 stores. Needless to say Steinbach was the draw, and at that time it was still run as a "better" store with features such as a restaurant, salon, and a mini post office branch.

By 1975 plans were announced that the mall would be building it's next phases and would include Sears, JC Penney, and 2 new mall wings with about 100 stores total. The economic doldrums of the late 70's and early 80's (a time when a 15% rate on a mortgage was considered good)pushed the project back.

By the time we entered the real estate boom of the mid 1980's, focus was already being spotlighted on a super regional mall planned for the Freehold Circle (remember what I said about NJ and it's traffic circles), and this mall would open with at least 3 anchors and grow to 5 with room for 7. The Freehold Raceway Mall was located about 5 miles to the south of the Manalapan Mall.

Meanwhile nothing was happening with the expansion of Manalapan Mall, and Steinbach was no longer the draw that it was as it went through a myriad of new marketing plans and was anything but a better dept store any longer, it also passed from one owner SGC, to another, Amcena Corp. and finally to another Crowley's (based in Detroit) By 1999 with Crowley's in bankruptcy (for the second time) the company was ordered to be liquidated, and some the larger Crowley and Steinbach stores were purchased by and became Value City stores (including the three NJ shore area mall based Steinbach stores, Manalapan Mall, Seaview Square, and the only mall of the group to still be a mall, the Shore Mall near Atlantic City).

By 2000, it was announced that the small Manalapan Mall would be torn down, and a new "lifestyle" center, the Epicenter at Manalapan, would take it's place. Value City would remain as a stand alone store, with the strip center big box stores built to the south and west of it.

Like Seaview Sqaure, Manalapan Mall died young, but unlike Seaview Sqaure, the area around the Manalapan Mall was, is and probally will always be upper-middle to upper income, and an ideal spot for a mall. Meanwhile Freehold Raceway Mall continues to prosper with 5 anchors open (Macy's, Nordstrom, Sears, JC Penney, Lord and Taylor), and a 6th one announced (Boscov's).

Debbi Carlin's Commentary:

Posted April 1, 2005 (user submitted)

Two small corrections to Ken Allan's otherwise excellent and thorough commentary: According to sources on the net, Manalapan Mall was opened in 1971 and demolished in 1998. As he said, this mall died very young.

When my family moved to the area in 1981, stores included Waldenbooks, Mandee, Friendly's, Musicland (the record selection there was heaven to 13-year-old me), a local discount store, a local pizza shop, a local jewlery store, a Jo-Ann's Nuts kiosk, and a few more stores that don't come to mind right now. As mentioned before, Asbury Park-based chain Steinbach's was the anchor.

No, it wasn't a major destination mall--if one wanted to go to a real mall, they had to go to Monmouth Mall (aka Eatontown Mall) in Eatontown 20 minutes to the southeast or Brunswick Square Mall in East Brunswick, 20 minutes to the north. But it was a mall, and it was convenient to those that lived in the area.

Freehold Raceway Mall opened in 1990 with four anchors--Sears, JC Penney, Stern's (later Lord & Taylor), and Nordstrom. Macy's would join them a few years later. They would open with or would eventually attract not only most of the usual suspect national chains (including two Kay Bee toy stores, though about two years ago they consolidated in one large space), but also a few regional chains (Kohr's Frozen Custard, Bang Bang), and even some unique mom-and-pops (an Irish gift store, a hat store). Their huge food court also has an old-fashioned carousel. Outposts included Home Depot, Bob's, CompUSA, Toys R Us, Sam's Club, a Loews multiplex, and more. (The CompUSA outpost store was originally Computer City, and the Home Depot was originally Builder's Square. ) Way more than poor little Manalapn Mall, with its mere 20 stores or so could offer.

So the typical case of the behemoth swallowing up the little guy? Not so fast. For the first year or so, nobody could even find Freehold Raceway Mall. Though it's surrounded by three busy highways (Routes 9, 33, and 537), except for the Toys R Us and Bob's/CompUSA outposts, you couldn't see the mall from any of them. (You still can't.) Manalapan Mall, on the other hand, is right there on Route 9. People were still loyal to the little mall, Steinbach's was still doing OK if not great, and the eateries were often crowded.

Still, with Manalapan, Freehold Township, and Marlboro continuing to grow, the big regional mall was becoming a star attraction. Manalapan Mall began to crumble. Musicland was the first to go. Waldenbooks and Friendly's either left for the bigger mall, or just decided being in two malls within five miles of each other made no financial sense. By 1996-1997, Manalapan Mall was dead, most of the businesses having given up. In 1998, it was demolished. As Mr. Allan stated, it has been replaced by the Epicentre, a big box center.

Interestingly, there are talks to bring a "lifestyle center" further south in Manalapan, much like what replaced Villa Italia in Colorado. There would be condos, boutiques, a multiplex, and a department store or two. It's way too early to tell when (or even if) this plan comes to fruition if it would be a threat to Freehold Raceway Mall. My guess is probably not, but you never know.

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