Malls locally and across the United States are facing changing times. Fewer customers are visiting brick and mortar retail stores and are opting to shop online.

Mall operators, however, aren't ready to call it quits and close up shop as they are optimistic the future remains bright for malls.

Changing times

Locally, malls have felt the changing times with empty storefronts and vacant anchor stores. In Akron, Rolling Acres Mall closed in 2008 and demolition was completed in 2017. Construction is underway of an Amazon Fulfillment Center on the property. Plans call for a 600,000-square-foot, $100 million facility, bringing 500 new jobs.

Chapel Hill Mall in Akron has also struggled as Macy's closed in 2016 and Sears closed in 2017. With the closing of the anchors, several small stores also left the mall, which originally opened in 1967.

Chapel Hill Mall developed by Richard Bucholzer and Forest City Enterprises invested $75 million at the time into the 175-acre site off Brittain Road. When the mall opened the anchors were O’Neil’s, J.C. Penny and Sears.

Chapel Hill Mall officials declined an interview, but on a recent visit to the mall, approximately only 30 storefronts were open, not counting the food court or kiosks. The mall has received several notices of utilities being turned off for lack of payment. While the utilities have been paid last minute, Summit County recently announced it is going to begin foreclosing on the mall because of a lack of payment for property taxes.

Another mall that has seen change is Carnation Mall in Alliance.

Carnation Mall General Manager Andrea Foley said the mall is definitely in a restructuring phase. The mall, which was built in 1983, lost one of its anchor stores, Elder-Beerman in 2018.

"Having empty spaces gives us the opportunity to explore other options," Foley said.

She said officials were sad to see Elder-Beerman leave and have been exploring other options.

"We all love retail but other organizations we are open to as well," Foley said.

She said the space is large, which makes it challenging for some retailers because it is bigger than the space most are seeking.

While the mall has several empty storefronts, Foley isn't giving up hope.

"A lot of people like to compare us to Belden (Village Mall)," Foley said. "We are not going to have every tenant Belden does."

Belden Village Mall is the local exception that isn’t struggling as it has very few empty storefronts. The mall, however, recently lost several national retailers who closed all their stores, including Payless Shoes and Charlotte Russe.

The mall opened in 1970 as the original anchors were O’Neil’s, Sears and Higbee’s. As time passed, Higbee’s became Dillard’s, O’Neils merged into May Company Ohio, which then became Kaufmann’s, and then finally Macy’s.

General Manager Mike Walsh said he is confident Belden Village Mall is not going anywhere.

"We have a right-sized mall," Walsh said, adding that bigger is not always better for malls. "We don't have dead wings or spaces."

More than just food and shops

The days of going to a mall just to shop and eat are a thing of the past.

Walsh said the big question becomes how to get people to spend time in the mall. To achieve that, he said the mall needs to offer a mix of not only food and retail stores but entertainment.

The mall wants to work with community partners to bring events such as art shows, cooking demonstrations and fitness classes. The mall recently put a large connect four and chess set out in the mall for guests to play.

"We want to be engaged in the community, not just the mall," Walsh said.

Dave & Buster’s opened late last year taking over the top floor of the Sears’ store. The Sears’ store space is owned by Seritage Growth Properties.

Sears downsized to a portion of the first floor and neared completion of the remodel only to announce the store would close Jan. 12. The store was a top-performing Sears' stores in the United States and was the last location in the Akron/Canton area.

A new use for the Sears’ space has not been announced, but there have been rumblings of Dick’s Sporting Goods moving into the space.

For Foley, Carnation Mall has the same vision offering a mix of tenants including retail, food and entertainment. She said the Alliance area is growing and hopefully the mall can grow with it.

Foley said many community shoppers use the mall and she said Alliance is profitable. She believes that many stores have lost loyalty with customers as they have turned to online shopping.

"Stores are all trying to find ways for them to stand out," Foley said. "It takes more than a cashier and full shelves. People want to have an experience and feel welcomed."

Foley doesn’t think badly of online shopping, she just believes there needs to be a balance and stores need to bring back the interactive experience and offer more human interactions.

"People still want to go out and do something," Foley said. "The mall concept of what to offer has to change with the times."

She said offering services and entertainment creates a sense of community in a mall. When it comes to entertainment, Carnation Mall offers a movie theater, which is a draw for customers.

"People thought movie theaters were going to go away," Foley said. "It is not the same experience as watching a movie at home."

She said the theater offers cheap tickets, which makes people travel to come to see movies. Also having an arcade and a hotel connected to the mall has been beneficial too, she said.

Investment and location

Jackson Township Fiscal Officer/Economic Development Director Randy Gonzalez said the biggest advantage the Belden Village Mall and area has is the proximately to Interstate 77. He said some of the restaurants and retail stores in the area do some of the most business in the country.

"Look at Borders when it closed at The Strip," Gonzalez said. "Within days, Books-A-Million announced they were moving in."

He said it is all about location and Belden does so well because when you go south on Interstate 77 there is nothing in the immediate area.

"Land is so valuable because of 77 being right there," Gonzalez said.

When it comes to malls, he said, Belden Village has done a great job modernizing it.

Most of the outside of Belden Village Mall have experienced a facelift with new restaurants and the new entrance created several years ago. The south side of the mall saw a facelift with the opening of Dave & Buster’s. Gonzalez said he wants to see Macy’s and Dillard’s also revamp the exterior of their stores and he said the township is going to be working with them.

In addition to looks, Gonzalez said people want to feel safe and he said Jackson police do a nice job of patrolling the area on top of the security the mall has.

He said the harsh reality is malls have to change with the times and Summit Mall and Belden Village have done that and that is why they are succeeding. He said both malls have access to stores and restaurants from not only in the mall but outside too.

Gonzalez said malls take a hit when they lose an anchor store.

"When you lose a major market that is what is drawing people in," Gonzalez said.

Future growth

Belden Village Mall mostly landlocked and Walsh said the mall is not trying to get bigger.

"We can only expand in certain ways," Walsh said.

He said the north side of the mall recently saw a renovation, which added several restaurant spaces including Melt, The Rail and Burntwood Tavern.

Walsh would love to see a Microsoft or Apple store joint as a tenant but said there just aren't empty spaces for something like that. While Walsh is focused on growth, he said officials, don’t want to lose focus on continued maintenance of the facility. The mall recently gave the food court a facelift.

"We want to keep things fresh and make it a little more homely so people will spend the day here," Walsh said.