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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.

History shows the complexity of the south side's commercial demise -- and of its rebirth, too

Southtown Mall was torn down in 2004 after just 37 years after its groundbreaking -- a testament to changing commercial conditions on the city's south side. The Public Safety Academy, Wal-Mart, Menard's and other smaller businesses occupy the site today. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Southtown Mall was torn down in 2004 after just 37 years after its groundbreaking -- a testament to changing commercial conditions on the city's south side. The Public Safety Academy, Wal-Mart, Menard's and other smaller businesses occupy the site today. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Even before Southtown Mall's official demise, most of its tenants had moved out. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Even before Southtown Mall's official demise, most of its tenants had moved out. (News-Sentinel file photo)
Tom Henry
Tom Henry
Walkers at Southtown Mall move down a wing of empty store fronts Monday afternoon.
Walkers at Southtown Mall move down a wing of empty store fronts Monday afternoon.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, December 03, 2015 05:02 am
When retailers decided to build Fort Wayne's first large suburban shopping center in 1956, the resulting strip mall's name proudly proclaimed its location: Southgate. The nearby Southtown Mall followed in 1967 and confidently expanded from 680,000 to 1.1 million square feet 13 years later. Sears moved there from Rudisill Boulevard, and some of Southgate's tenants did the same.

It was also about that time Southtown management held a press conference to express concerns that construction of the proposed Apple Glen shopping center at Jefferson Boulevard and Illinois Road would inflict the same sort of exodus on them.

In fact, Apple Glen wasn't built until years later. But by then it didn't matter. Long before Southtown closed and was razed in 2004, it was attracting more walkers than shoppers because most of its stores had long since given up. Southgate was assured a better fate when Jack Kellams of Oolitic, Ind., bought the center at the request of the Kroger Co., an original tenant. But even though Kellams and Kroger spruced the place up and filled most of the vacancies, the national retailers that once anchored the center — JC Penney, Woolworth's — have mostly been replaced by smaller shops often catering to lower-income shoppers. 

What happened? The 1983 loss of International Harvester and its thousands of good-paying jobs? Racism and white flight? The perception or reality of crime? Bad management? The outward expansion of roads, schools and commerce common in almost any city? Whatever the cause, history shows that the current lack of commercial choices on the south side is both complex and relatively new. Mayor Tom Henry and others acknowledged as much Wednesday when Henry outlined the city's latest attempt to provide south-side residents the kind of shopping and dining opportunities people in other parts of town take for granted.

 When the consultant who will earn $5,000 a month possibly through the end of next year compares Fort Wayne's south side to Detroit, you know the challenge is real. But that's exactly what Jeffrey Higgins, president of Detroit-based Indigo Centers, did when he talked about the perceptions that have impeded commercial growth in both areas. Higgins said his familiarity with those perceptions in Detroit will help him overcome them here but added: "If it was easy, I wouldn't be here today."

Henry seems determined to follow the blueprint that has shown success downtown. Although city-funded studies indicated a desire for more housing there, not much happened until the city took the lead and provided financial support for such things as Parkview Field, Courtyard by Marriott Hotel and other projects. 

A recent analysis of south-side commercial potential found demand for as many as 120 new shops and restaurants, but similar subsidies will be needed to attract commerce to the south side, Henry said. And no doubt he's right: If shops, restaurants, hotels or other businesses were confident they could make money there, they'd be on the south side already. Once a few businesses locate there and do well, he predicted, "the rest will fall like dominoes and we'll continue the momentum." 

But, again, history shows it won't be that simple. The south side faces unique challenges, and the city's last big commercial push there, which helped attract Wal-Mart and Menard's to the former Southtown site about 10 years ago, obviously haven't created the spin-off investment the city wanted. If it had, Henry wouldn't need Higgins' services now.

Even before Southtown Mall was in its death-throes, I remember trying to buy a suit at L.S. Ayres only to be told that I would have to go the the Glenbrook store for that. It got to the point where I couldn't even buy a can of tennis balls in Sears' sporting goods department. I'm sure they were catering to the perceived demographic mix of their customers, but their decision was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom because customers will learn to avoid businesses that don't provide the goods and services they want.

No amount of government subsidies can or should compensate for market forces for an extended period. But Urban League President Jonathan Ray was right when he called Wednesday's announcement "a good fist step." The plan's ultimate success will be determined not by government but by the free market and south-side residents themselves. 

As a proud southeast-side native, I have confidence in both.



This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.
   

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