The end draws near for us here in Central Wisconsin, and while we are excited to be moving and facing new challenges and opportunities down in the middle-west, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to see everyone we would like to see, or do some of the things we’d like to do.

Stevens Point has been home for me for 22 years. I grew up here, graduated high school and college here. Built a non-profit here. Loved here, hated here, met incredible people, enjoyed great success and failure, felt like a prince and an outcast. Joy and suffering. And, for all the experiences I’ve had, people I’ve met and trouble I in all likelihood should have gotten in to, here I am with less than five days left and feeling like there is much I have yet to do.

When I stop to think about it, though, I notice two things: the pond has gotten too small, and I have grown too big, in the most non-narcissistic way possible.

Thanks to a story in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, I have become absolutely hooked on deadmalls.com and labelscar.org. In fact, when wife and I were recently visiting Kansas City prior to our impending move on a scouting trip, I took her through Blue Ridge Crossing. Only a few years ago, I had experienced KC as an adult for the first time and remember the shell of Blue Ridge Mall. It looked crusty even then, a recent addition to the plethora of industrial-commercial wasteland (which, ironically, makes Kansas City endearing and even appealing) only to be re-imagined as a big box retail outlet, home to a Wal-Mart and Lowe’s, amongst other outparcel properties. The extra-crusty cineplex is still sitting there, a creepy capitalist mausoleum, fenced in.

These kinds of places bother me, creep me out, fascinate me. Knowing that thousands of people spent millions of dollars there, and it sits on the south of I-70, a relic of a bygone day. I read about Bannister Mall, and the video footage of an urban explorer sifting through what was left after fire department exercises was downright heartbreaking.

I was a wreck when the Minnesota North Stars left Minnesota for a land that had no naturally-occuring ice. Though we had moved to Central Wisconsin from the south TC suburbs six years prior, we were there in Minneapolis the day after their fate was sealed. It was like an entire metropolitan area had its heart ripped out. My brother, along with Mom, did campus visits, and Dad and I drove around town. We listened to WCCO, callers crying and upset that a team that was the ideal image of American hockey would be wrested from the unquestioned hotbed of American hockey.

Later, when it was clear that the North Stars’ arena, the Met Center, would not be solvent without a permanent tenant, they gave the go ahead to blow it up. My family was again in the area when they blew it up, and we went to the Mall of America the day after. There I was, staring at the imploded wreckage of a hockey arena, a place that was indelibly etched into my earliest memories. My brother’s caustic sense of humor manifested itself weeks later when he sent me a postcard from college, a four-frame series of the demolition. On the back, “Just thinking of you. [R.]” I stared at it the entire next day in junior high.

And for the record; yes, Norm Green still sucks.

So I get the general idea the folks at labelscar are trying to convey: these malls aren’t just the hubs of capitalism, but connecting places for entire communities. When they die, they take childhood, often mistaken with youthful innocence, with it. I’ve seen some of the places that made the dubious lists of both places: I saw Apache Plaza in St. Anthony, lived near Knollwood in St. Louis Park, thought Festival Bay in Orlando looked too new to be so empty. I walked through the empty corridors of Port Plaza and Park Plaza as a bored young person during church conferences. Most recently, I saw movies at the Tallahassee Mall, which was alive and kicking when I lived down yonder for an academic year.

And then, there’s my own hometown, with its own dead mall: the CenterPoint MarketPlace. Like Port and Park Plazas, it was developed as a proactive reaction to sprawl. Unsubstantiated rumor persists that an idea much like Appleton’s Fox River Mall was proposed for Stevens Point, but the downtown businesses caused an uproar, and the city responded by slapping a mall downtown, damaging the integrity of the central city infrastructure and, most notably, gutting the backs of the old storefronts, not the least of which was the Main Street Opera House, a landmark on the national record, and converted into a classic American storefront cinema. “The Fox” sits there, dormant. It was dilapidated for years of neglect and disrepair, thanks in part to short-sighted city planners and a jilted property owner. In recent years, the city tried to mend fences and was able to procure funds to restore the old theater marquee, and though much idle chatter has come and gone about bringing it back to life, it sits there. Perhaps someday.

In any case, the mall was a hit at first: boasting a Sears hardware and appliances specialty store, a JCPenney and a ShopKo held down the anchors, and the inner spaces were well-occupied. It worked for a while, (unlike The Avenue in downtown Appleton, which was DOA and is shockingly left off the registers at both labelscar and deadmalls) the mall and downtown businesses made for a team that worked in the 80s. I remember doing “Crazy Days” in the summer, a giant downtown sidewalk sale that was actually worth the while. And, of course, I remember Kay-Bee Toy and Hobby. Though overpriced, it was a little slice of childhood bliss.

I also remember when it closed. And I always will remember that as being the beginning of the end of the CenterPoint Mall.

Later, when I worked downtown at a sub shop, I took count of the vacant spaces during delivery runs through the mall to ShopKo. (It was more convenient to walk than anything else, those of you who are from here or around here will understand.) 70+% vacancy, and that was five years ago. In an attempt to revitalize, planners added another anchor in the late 90s, Stage. Stage was a crappy store with a crap-pile selection and when word got out that they targeted mid-sized cities like Stevens Point because they could exploit the huddled, unwashed working class yokels, they may as well have taken hemlock. Stage shuttered its doors, and eventually (that is, over a year had passed before) a Dunham’s Sports took over the space. Even then, mom-and-pop joints have come and gone, the boutique extension that led out to Main Street turned out to be a colossal bust, the jewelry stores finally gave up, and there may not be realistically more than three inner tenants left.

The citizens, finally fed up with the utter failure of the mall, began to cry out for action. The Downtown Business Association, long since organized after the days of the threat of sprawl, in thug, mob-boss like action refused to let anything happen to the mall, for fear of other, more successful developments on the east side and in Plover to the south. (Also not helping the state of affairs was the truly forward-thinking and bold strategies of downtown Wausau, where the mall not only survives, but has actually reenergized downtown business while also embracing development to the south of them, but that’s another matter. A matter called basic economics, a matter apparently not taught in these ‘progressive’ parts. The current, overblown state of the economy has dealt a blow to our friends up north, but let’s face it: Stevens Point’s retail life was put on a respirator when practically every other part of the country was booming in the 80s and early 90s.)

So, when Wausau and Appleton were viable options, and Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis not that far off, why would anyone go to a little mall in the most difficult-to-navigate part of a small city in Central Wisconsin? I mourn the loss of those shopping centers where memories were made, but I feel none of that same affinity toward our own dead mall. Frankly, it was never important enough, or relevant long enough, to people in these parts to leave an indelible impression.

And, in the inevitable introspection that comes with seeing the death of other people’s collective childhood, I see that this area never really deserved what it had. K-B, jewelry stores and record shops are for people with disposable income. A person can buy a toy anywhere, or a ring. For an indiscriminate consumer, these things can be picked up at a ShopKo or a K-Mart. Why would we need a toy store? There are jewelers on Main St., why should I go in the mall? What the mall did was give the area a false sense of retail entitlement: malls thrive when anchor stores lure people in and the specialty stores inside keep them in. When K-B hit its first of many fiscal potholes, they shuttered the Stevens Point location in the first wave. Same with Sears, which reappeared in the same format years later on the south side. As other retail destinations grew in size, stature and appeal, ours did precisely the opposite. Good intentions disappear or are broken under the weight of harsh financial reality.

In Stevens Point, it was a mixture of both: clearly, the strategy was little better than suicidal over the long-term: the mall dried up and now the downtown runs the risk of becoming all bars, tattoo/piercing joints and seedy, as though there weren’t enough bars and seediness. What was for a short time a set of gemini stars is now nearly a black hole of retail (and cultural) blight.

I get the sentimentality that comes with seeing people and places undone, but this area is too culturally practical and hardy for that kind of emotional nonsense. They’d rather gut a historic building and make room for something shiny and new, only to complain about it later when it doesn’t work out as hoped and, mind-bogglingly have the audacity to refuse to do anything to attempt to undo the damage done.

And that’s why people drive to Appleton (or further) to shop. It’s also an auxiliary reason why people like wife and me choose to move elsewhere.

I had dinner downtown with one of my very closest friends last night. It’s a bit of a tradition for us when we haven’t connected for a while. As we left, we looked around and saw how many kids were out, hanging out with nothing to do. The Fox sat there, empty with a nice, shiny sign that wasn’t even lit as it should be. Empty (or closed) storefronts greeted the eyes, and yet everyone was there.

You see, on that end of downtown is the vast majority of parking for the bars on the opposite end. At first blush, you’d think downtown was the place to be, vibrant and alive and full of people; in reality, they’re there because there is nowhere else to go. Thankfully, the world still has places that connect people in ways that don’t have to explicitly involve ennui. Or beer goggles.

Through it all, thank you, Stevens Point. I hope you’ll grow up someday.

[exit stage southwest]

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