MORGANTOWN — The American mall is a changing concept.
Many indoor malls have closed their doors, or are being leveled and replaced.
Mall adventurers have taken to YouTube, exploring empty storefronts and outdated light fixtures, exposing the crisis of mall occupancy.
But, other malls such as Mountaineer Mall, on Green Bag Road, have found new life.
Carol Hall, a resident of Morgantown for 30 years, has been volunteering at Senior Monongalians and is involved with OLLI — Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Both are located inside what longtime community members call “the old mall.”
She said the mall has hosted events like chili cook-offs and flea markets, and believes those kinds of activities are what attracts people to the mall. She thinks something like a Dollar Tree — which was once open there — would bring more traffic.
Now, on either end of the mall are two businesses. Mylan Pharmaceuticals has offices on the end where the area’s first Walmart once opened.
Teletech, a business process outsourcing company designed to help corporations, is at the other end where Montgomery Wards was for decades.
“I’ll tell you what keeps this place going, Mylan and Teletech. If it wasn’t for them this mall would probably close down because there’s not enough people here,” Hall said.
She said growing up in the area, she often shopped at the mall, pointing out when it had a busy theater as well as a pizza place she frequented.
She said there were always a lot of people there, even in the evenings. She said the parking lot was always filled with cars.
Now, Walkers traverse the corridors, using them as an indoor walking track.
Hall wonders if the faster pace of life sends people to places like Walmart, where they can get much of what they need in one place, or to their computers for online shopping.
“I guess they’re so busy with their lives and what time they have with their families … we’re on a fast move, we have been for years. It’s just everything is so fast-paced they want everything where they can get it, then can go,” she said.
Lifelong Morgantown resident Susie Mayfield worked at the mall in the 1980s. She’s volunteered for the last 10 years at the Animal Friend’s Thrift Shop, also in the mall. She said it was in the ‘90s that she saw stores leaving Mountaineer Mall, as the Morgantown Mall — just a few miles away in Westover — became increasingly popular.
She sees the popularity of the strip malls like Suncrest Towne Centre and University Town Centre, but doesn’t understand it.
She doesn’t shop in malls, preferring to get what she needs online.
Mayfield said the thrift shop — which takes donated items and then sells them to raise money for an animal rescue organization — does well at Mountaineer Mall.
Advertising and word-of-mouth brings people out. People who want to help animals make a point to shop there.
Since she started volunteering there, Mayfield said she’s seen progress in filling some empty spaces.
She hopes more people coming to the mall will bring more places to eat, shop and do business.
The senior center, she said, brings in a lot of people.
She has seen a shift in how and where people shop. There are less people in the malls, and she said it’s become convenient to shop online.
“Convenience is what everybody wants,” she said.
Growing up, everything could be found in downtown Morgantown. Hill’s was one of the first department stores to be outside of downtown. There were two locations — what is now Sabraton Plaza and in Star City, where Aldi’s and Golden Corral are. The one in Star City even housed a movie theater.
That was the beginning of the real shift in retail locations, she said.
Spark! Imagination and Science Center is also housed in Mountaineer Mall.
Executive Director Julie Bryan has been with Spark since 2011, and Spark has called the mall its home since 2002. It started as the Fun Factory, and then the Children’s Discovery Museum of West Virginia and finally Spark.
Bryan sees free parking a benefit of being at the mall, and also likes being able to use the mall space outside Spark to hold events.
She said, though people may not come to the mall for retail, they do come with a purpose.
“I guess I see the mall differently than a lot of other people do, because when you look at it like a mall it doesn’t look like a mall,” she said.
She sees a place where there’s people walking when they can’t be outside. She sees small businesses or nonprofits that have a place to set up.
“If you’re just a person who comes in and walks around the mall you’re going to think there’s not a lot going on here, but I have since learned that even though it’s not retail there’s probably something in that space,” she said.
Her perspective has changed in the time she’s spent there. She believes it is something that is useful to the community.
“Our attendance grows every year. Last year, we were over 12,000 and we’re only open Tuesday through Saturday 10 (a.m.) to 1 (p.m.). We do have a lot of people coming here,” she said.
Bryan said she thinks malls have to transform themselves, and she thinks people will start to see more places like Spark at malls.
“I think people are looking for experiences more than things these days. I think you’re gonna see that transformation happen with malls, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” she said.
She said the mall is clean, safe and well taken care of, and it’s being used.
“I think if we have an idea of what it’s supposed to be and only look at it that way then we might be sad, but to me it’s a great thing that it’s been able to reinvent itself,” said Bryan.