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Steve Novotney Says, "Mall Memories and the Future"

Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas explains the current retail crunch in the country very well, and he doesn't make any excuses.

Stores are closing at the Ohio Valley mall -- some big ones and some small ones. While there is a replacement in place (Marshall's for half of the square footage once occupied by Elder Beerman), the other side will be empty just like Kmart, MC Sports, and Radio Shack.

Although Thomas, one of three county commissioners, is confident in the commitment by the mall's owner, the Cafaro Company, it is not a situation relative to Belmont County alone. At The Highlands in Ohio County, for example, Michael's Crafts closed up in March, and Rue 21 recently announced it will be closing its doors, too. Officials with the Ohio County Development Authority are working diligently to fill those spots, according to Ohio County Commissioner Orphy Klempa, but what will work at those "Power Center" locations is, well, a mystery right now.

There is an important difference between the two counties, however, and it involves sale tax dollars. In West Virginia, the Ohio County Commission was granted the option to establish TIF districts at The Highlands, a program that allows for bond debt to be directly paid off by the tax dollars collected, but in Belmont County the commissioners rely on the piggy-back sales tax to fund many of the services offered.

When that revenue decreases, services are cut back. That's the fiscal reality which Thomas and his colleagues must handle when retail sales decrease, and that is unfortunately the case now because of the losses inside the mall. Of course, it's not the first time the place has seen businesses fold up.

Remember the Merry Go Round? The Limited was right there on the corner of the hallway that led to the cinemas, and there were Elby's, Elmo's, Ritz Camera, Montgomery Ward, L.S. Good, Stone & Thomas, Kaufmann's, Charlie Chan's …

National Record Mart, Zide's, Mr. Bulky's, Walden's Books, Abbey's, J.C. Penney's, Wendy's, Petland, Ponderosa, Silverman's, Lerner, The Gap, County Seat, KB Toys, Chess King …

Casual Corner, Der Dog House, Coles, Listening Booth, World Bazaar, Kirlands, Belmont County National Bank, Burlington Coat Factory, 5-7-9, Hit or Miss, Aladdin's Castle, Sam Goody, Best, PharMor, Motherhood, Steve & Barry's, Scotto's, Swiss Colony …

Your Father's Mustache, Maurice's, Athlete's Foot, SunCoast Video, Rite Aid, Captain D's, Rave, Hills, McCroy's, Toys by Rizzi, Susie's Casuals, Crafts 2000, Chess King, and Rax.

That was then, but this is now, and only Spencer's and Sears remain today, and Thomas said last week on the show that Sears, the longtime retail giant that dates back to 1886, will be going defunct, too.

Why?

Because the retail industry has customer-base recognition down to a science.

At the time the Ohio Valley Mall opened, coal mining remained strong, and so was steel, and the median age of the region was about 10 years younger is today's 48 years of age. We're older, there are far fewer living-wage job opportunities because steel is dead, and coal is on life support for the next 30 years. We were all told a while ago that something called the "service industry" was our future here in the Valley, but no one really understood what that meant.

Well, the definition is known now, and it's led to a two-job world for mamy local residents as they've waved goodbye to their kiddos seeking better opportunities.

What most do not understand is that the stores inside and outside the Ohio Valley Mall are a reflection of us, the population within 30 miles of the place. Unlike The Highlands, the mall cannot depend on interstate pull-offs for anything more than the fast-food and the gas-station sales because access to the roofed shopping district is awkward and always has been, so that means what is there serves our ability to spend.

If you want to make a comparison sometime, visit the Macy's at the Ohio Valley Mall, and then visit the same store inside South Hills Village near Pittsburgh.

Night and day, as far as what is available for purchase.

You may despise the phrase as many do, but it holds true today – it is what it is because we are who we are. We shop, sure, but no longer can we afford to be the same materialistic population on which the local retail industry has depended since the mall doors swung up that first time in late 1970s.

The good news for Thomas and his fellow commissioners is that the gas and oil workers are rapidly returning to Belmont County, and those white trucks can be seen parked outside the hotels and the restaurants, filling up at the gas stations, and grabbing goods at grocery stores.

The bad news is that the county coffers will not see those dollars until they are configuring the next budget and not before they make the decisions they need to now.

Categories: Commentary