An Event That Changed Parkersburg Forever

It had to do with one of this area's favorite activities.

In August, 1972, people were watching Mark Spitz win a chest of gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany (a venue which was also to be the site of a major terrorist attack in early September), and wondering what all the fuss was about a break-in at the Democratic headquarters in Washington, D.C. (an event President Nixon's press secretary was calling a "third-rate burglary-which, technically, it was)...all while watching Nixon win the Republican nomination while Democratic nominee George McGovern announced his running mate-twice.

In the middle of that month, an event happened which, in many ways, changed this area forever.

According to news accounts, mall management can't even pinpoint the exact date.  But in mid-August, Grand Central Mall opened for the first time.

Lots of malls had opened across the country beginning in the 1960's.  But Grand Central was among the first in West Virginia.  Maybe not THE first, but I know malls in Huntington and Charleston didn't open until the 1980's.

Why was "the mall" such a game-changer? In Parkersburg, as well as in many other cities for decades, if you told someone you were "going downtown", it likely meant you were going shopping.  The downtowns, or "central business districts" of U.S. cities large and small were literally their economic centers. Where I came from (and if you've seen "A Christmas Story", you know what I mean), people talked about going to major department stores in cities' downtowns, especially during the Christmas holidays.

The malls changed all that, and Parkersburg is no exception.

For one thing, most aren't located in cities.  They're in suburban areas.  We all know, of course, that Grand Central Mall is mostly located in Vienna, which grew like a weed after the mall was built; a growth which hasn't slowed down until recently.

Secondly, they were different.  The stores were all enclosed under one roof.  No more walking in the cold from one store to the other in December; they're all inside.

History shows downtown Parkersburg suffered, at least economically, as a result.  While Dils Brothers (which did have a clothing store at the mall), Cox's, G.C. Murphy's and others all lasted into the 1980's, they didn't make it beyond that.  An important date in downtown's history as an economic center was January of 1988, when Dils closed for good.

There were efforts for years to "revitalize" downtown, which usually meant returning it to its status as a retail center.  Nearly all of them failed.  Not only did the mall take shoppers away, so did all of the retail chains which opened stores not just in Vienna around the mall, but up Murdoch avenue as well. It wasn't just Parkersburg. People just didn't go "downtown" to shop any more.

There have, in recent years, finally been successful efforts to improve the central business district. But most have had something to do with professional offices, not retailers, opening up shop.  The opening of West Virginia University's downtown branch campus might be another step in that process.

Meanwhile, the mall has probably felt the pinch as well.  20 years after it opened, the Vienna Wal-Mart, open 24 hours a day (except Thanksgiving and Christmas), set up shop right next door.  The South Side Wal-Mart opened in 2000. The megastores may eventually be thing that sends the malls into history (at least one mall I know of in the Cleveland area went out of business a few years ago). Like everything else, change happens. And, of course, there's online shopping.

But the Grand Central Mall is celebrating this month, as it should.  An H.H. Gregg store just opened, replacing the Borders chain, which went out of business last year.  And, like the Fleetwood Mac song says, mall management shouldn't stop thinking about tomorrow-because yesterday's gone.



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