Wednesday, October 23, 2013

White Elephant

The conception and construction of the Mall at Steamtown was like birthing an elephant.  It took forever, and it was painful.

There were property acquisition problems, design issues, fights with the architectural heritage people, financing challenges, and the list goes on and on.

It was actually quite a relief when a string of Lackawanna Avenue buildings were imploded on the morning of April 5th, 1992.  After the dust cleared, we all got the feeling that it was actually going to happen.

As you know by now, the mall's honeymoon was a short one.  the struggles began not long after the ribbon was cut.  An anchor, The Globe, closed.  Other stores left for greener pastures, like Viewmont and Montage.  Montgomery Ward closed.  Bon Ton came in to fill the void, and it will be gone shortly after the start of the new year.

Department store owner and the man behind the mall, Al Boscov, admitted last week the Mall st Steamtown is struggling for survival.  It's not hard to see why.  There's a lot of empty space.  Shoppers have to maneuver through downtown traffic to get there.  Plus, there's the big elephant in the room.  There's a perception, deserved or not, that the mall isn't safe.  People just don't like parking garages, especially at night.

I felt this way 20 years ago, and I feel the same way now-- retail is not the answer to Scranton's problems.  Downtowns are no longer retail centers.  We cannot recreate the store filled downtowns of our youth.  Those days are gone, and they're never coming back.

Having said that, I thought the downtown mall was a good idea.  Those old buildings had to go.  No one was interested in redeveloping them.  The money just wasn't there.  Retail was the best of a number of mediocre options.

I do recall the excitement of the time.  It was a good looking building, filled with stores.  I did a live shot, for my old station, just off the food court, the night before the mall opened.  I think it was the first live shot inside the completed mall, and it was a kick to do it.  It was an optimism rarely felt in downtown Scranton.

It seems we have fewer options now.  The mall now has a museum, a library brach, and some county offices.  Do we tear it down?  What do we put there?  Who has the money to make it work?

The mall at Steamtown opened 20 years ago today.

We gave birth to an elephant, and it turned out to be a white one.