Andrew San Juan's Commentary

Posted September 12, 2010 (user submitted)

Opened in 1969, Southgate Mall was the first and is still the only enclosed mall in the largely rural area of northeastern North Carolina. The mall opened with Belk-Tyler and WT Grant as main anchors with a Winn-Dixie supermarket and People's Drug as junior anchors. Space also existed for 35-ish smaller shops. The mall is a combined 250,000 square feet. With store expansions over the years, the number of shops has declined to 26.

Today, Southgate Mall appears to be thriving with all spaces filled, save for three. However, the double threats of a new business district to the west and a rumored mall in the future may limit its days. In addition, the mall is rapidly aging and though new coats of paint have been splashed on, for the most part, the mall still retains its vintage late 60s design. The rear of the mall is not faced with brick and remains as unsightly bare cinder-block.

Notable architectural features include the central corridor skylights, the front main entrance and the Belk department store itself.

The skylights are in a 60's configuration of panels in a straight row lining the walls near the ceiling junction in the center court area of the mall. I don't know if skylights were ever placed above the mall entrances of Belk and W.T. Grant, as the heightened ceiling in both places and circular patterns on the linoleum floors strongly suggest their appearance at one point.

The front main entrance is a small watchtower-like structure whose ceiling is arched and covered by rows of golden mirrors. Globe lamps are attached to the mirrors. The entrance and foyer does not appear to have been remodeled since 1968.

The Belk store is especially notable as the second Belk store to be built in a mall after the Oglethorpe Mall location in Savannah, GA. This was shortly after Belk's decision in 1968 to vacate traditional downtown locations, marking their exodus from Main Street districts.

The first three stores shared the same design and layout, albeit on different scales, with the Elizabeth City store likely being the smallest. All were early prototypes for the distinctive Belk entrance arches, which in these cases were made of inexpensive, preformed concrete. The third store was located in Kinston, NC.

Excerpts from the Belk website history section:

"The future was to be in the business of operating full-line department stores. New stores would be larger and located in shopping malls, with sites determined by market research, not real estate interests or hunches. The new stores would also offer customers style and fashion."

"Once again, Arthur Tyler was a key figure. John and Tom made sure that some of the early projects, first in Elizabeth City and then in Kinston, were scheduled for Tyler’s stores."

"On April 16, 1969, Bill Beery of Wilmington,N.C., clipped a ribbon and opened a Belk-Beery store in Oglethorpe Mall on the outskirts of Savannah, Ga..."

"The new Savannah store was a simple box design set off by three distinctive high arches that highlighted the entrance."

"...This style of store featured a fairly simple exterior­a windowless box, with only the entrance receiving special attention. In the early mall stores, including the first small mall stores for Arthur Tyler in Elizabeth City and Kinston, Surratt’s architects incorporated the arches that had been used in the entrance of the Savannah store. Inside, designers matched colors, wall and floor coverings, and layouts to produce a total shopping environment, not just sales space in a box. Surratt added designers who created counters and dynamic store fixtures to fit new circular traffic arrangements that encouraged a shopper to linger and shop, not cross quickly from one entrance to another."

While Southgate Mall is technically not a Deadmall, it almost became one in the early 2000s and with only 26 stores including the two main anchors and one junior, it may still become one.

A large tract of land known as "Tanglewood", three miles west of Elizabeth City and already half its land area was annexed in 2007 and 2008, already the home to a Wal-Mart Supercenter-anchored shopping plaza, an IHOP, a Marriott, as well as a Honda dealer and several commercial and residential developments.

A common rumor floating around town is that Greenbriar Mall purchased land in the area for a new mall, but so far there has been no solid evidence for this in the past three years.

Either way, Southgate's days may be numbered. If not killed off by a new mall, certainly the gravitation of the main business district to "Tanglewood" will.


According to City directory sources, between 1973 and 1976 the WT Grant was taken over by a Roses discount store and a Family Dollar joined the mall as well. The Winn-Dixie vacated the mall in 1982 or 83 for the then newly-built Holly Square, anchored by Kmart. JCPenney took over the old Winn-Dixie mall location and opened a small department store in 1984-85. The status quo remained the same until 1993 when the Roses chain encountered troubles and vacated the mall. During the same year, Peoples Drug was bought out by Revco. JCPenney took over the main anchor location in 1996 after extensive renovations to the Roses location, installing a much-lower drop ceiling and placing drywall dividers to break up the large space.

In 1998 a Chinese buffet moved into the former Roses cafeteria, a space that had not been utilized by JCPenney. During the same year, Revco was bought out by CVS, and the mall store persisted with only minor remodeling.

The Chinese buffet grew an enormous fan base and probably saved the mall during an economic dry spell from 1999 to 2003, when at its lowest point, mall vacancy reached 40 percent. On-Cue moved into the mall in 2001? and remained until 2004?, probably not reaching a sufficient customer base to remain viable.

In 2002 a short-lived Roses Express format was tried out in the former JCPenney location. A barebones appearance, poor aesthetics and shoddy merchandise probably influenced the mall to evict the store within a few months.

In early 2004 CVS moved out of the mall, leaving it without a drugstore for the first time in 35 years. Dragon Buffet moved immediately to acquire and renovate the location, opening in early 2005. The popularity of the buffet grew even more, drawing as much as a quarter of all mall traffic during lunch and dinner hours.

In 2007 the old JCPenney cum Roses Express store was renovated into a Goody's, taking with it the old Dragon Buffet that had been wedged between the JCPenney locations. Late 2007 also brought an expansion/move by Hibbett Sports which had been a tenant since 2001.

2008 Dragon Buffet re-inaugurated a separate Japanese hibachi and sushi bar that had opened in 2007, but closed for further remodeling. Shoe Dept. also expanded its space, dropping the number of stores to 26, not including kiosks.

Links - Photo of the mall from Flickr user "ussenterprise100"
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