As Macy's Leaves, Eastern Hills Continues To Re-Invent

The Future of Eastern Hills Mall

The mall in Akron, Ohio, died in 2008. In East Oakland, Calif., the mall fell ill in the '90s and then became a government center. The mall in Lexington, Ky., perished in 2008. 

The unique concept of the shopping mall, once considered an American novelty after World War II, is said to be slowly fading away, not only in Ohio and California and Kentucky, but in every corner of the United States. A website named DeadMalls.com famously tallies the decline, including submissions from all 50 states as well as Canada and New Zealand. 

In Western New York's Northtowns, the Eastern Hills Mall would prefer not to join the ranks of the dead. On Wednesday, though, Macy's undeniably sent a blow to the mall by announcing it would close its location at Eastern Hills, as well as a location at McKinley Mall in Hamburg and 34 other locations across the country. Macy's defended its decision as purely a business move. 

According to documents filed with the New York State Department of Labor, both the McKinley Mall and Eastern Hills Mall Macy's stores will close sometime between April 6 and 19 of this year.

Russell Fulton, the general manager of Eastern Hills Mall, touted his 100-percent occupancy rate in an email and said his strategy for the mall will not change. 

Eastern Hills, wary of the nationwide trend of dead malls, has re-invented itself lately with a simple strategy: more local stores. That includes Buffalo Gallery and Gift Shop, owned by lifelong Western New York resident Nathan Mroz.  

"I grew up in this mall," Mroz said. "I have a passion for this mall. I want to see this mall succeed."

SEE: The New Yorker's story, "Are Malls Over?"

Mroz operated a kiosk at the mall for four years before moving into a permanent store in November, where he taps into the region's comeback mentality by selling Buffalo memorabilia.  

"Malls, in general, they are going away," Mroz said. "But the ones that are sticking around are the ones that I think will be upper-scale, and that's one thing we try to do here as well. Higher-end items and things you won't be able to find anywhere else."

Alan Bedenko has a different idea. In July, he published a piece for "The Public" about the Eastern Hills Mall, arguing it could increase its chances at survival by transforming into what's known as a "lifestyle center." These developments blend the traditional mall setting into almost a mini-neighborhood with open space between stores. Just take Cleveland, Ohio, as an example 

"People who go to Cleveland know about them. People who go to Pittsburgh know about them, not to mention other parts of the country," Bedenko said in an interview. "So these are things that have existed in other places for years and years and years... and we just haven't gotten around to doing one."

Bedenko agrees that high-end shops are the way to go-- but he doesn't believe local stores are necessarily the key to success for Eastern Hills.

"I think if you want to buy local, you have Elmwood Avenue, you have Allentown, East Aurora, Williamsvile," Bedenko said. "But a mall is a mall. I think you're setting yourself up for disappointment if you try to turn something that's supposed to be for chain stores... into something that it's not."

At Eastern Hills, though, store owners vow to survive by staying local. Greg Duell, the co-owner of the Duff's location at the mall, finds himself in an interesting position. His restaurant is immune to the new generation of online shopping -- "you can't get chicken wings online," he said -- so it serves as a starting point for customers to draw them to the rest of the mall.

"I love being in a mall," Duell said. "I see the concern, but I think people are smart enough to figure out how to keep malls alive. It's been an institution for, many years now in America? They'll figure it out."


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