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The idea of Belden Village Mall became a reality 50 years ago

Patricia Faulhaber
Suburbanite correspondent

Editor's Note: This is the first of two articles about the development of Belden Village Mall in honor of the mall’s 50th anniversary this year. The second article will highlight the economic impact Belden Village Mall has had on Jackson Township and Stark County.

JACKSON TWP.  Let’s go to the mall.

People in Stark County have been going to the Belden Village Mall now for 50 years. The favored mall has attracted shoppers from Stark, Summit, Tuscarawas, Cuyahoga and most of the surrounding counties since opening its doors on Aug. 6, 1970.

This is an aerial view of the area in 1965 where Belden Village Mall would be built. Everhard Road and I-77 can clearly be seen in the photo.

According to the mall-hall-of-fame.blogspot.com, the first store to open was Higbee’s. Then Sears opened on Oct. 21, 1970, and O’Neil’s opened on Feb. 22, 1971. Other memorable stores opening in those early days included Rogers Jewelry, Spencer's Gifts, Stern & Mann, Cleveland Tux, Thom Mcan shoes, Baker’s Shoes, Camelot Music, Walden Books, Davis Organs, Casual Corner and so many more.

Belden Village would become a two story, 191,000 square foot mall. It all began when Higbee’s announced its plans to develop 140 acres of land in the Akron-Canton area in early 1967 before I-77 was finished. Alan Zambie and James W. Day worked for the Higbee Company and one day in February of 1967 Zambie drove Day to Canton from their offices in Cleveland to “look at property Higbee’s was buying in Jackson Township.”

An aerial photo of Belden Village in 1972 after the mall was built. I-77 is clear in the photo as is many of the newer roads surrounding the mall area including the extension of Dressler Road, Belden Village Avenue, Higbee Avenue and Holiday Street and where Whipple Avenue runs along the mall and under freeway.

Day was vice president of public affairs for Higbee’s and wrote in “My Life at Higbee’s” that, “When Alan showed me the property, I couldn’t believe that they (Higbee’s) purchased it. It was the hills of West Virginia. Everhard Road was hills and curves and the land below was swamp and there was nothing but old homes in a half mile area.”

He went on to write that because of the location, next to I-77 and between Akron and Canton, it was the best location to build a new mall. Higbee’s had purchased 100 acres initially. They would eventually own 200 acres with adjoining property including the Holiday Country Club. Henry Belden III, his brother Marshall Belden and his sister Elizabeth Martin owned about 180 acres.

This is from 1975 showing the traffic on Everhard Road going into the mall entrance.

Business Editor for The Cleveland Press, Ray De Crane wrote in an article on June 27, 1968, using a quote from Higbee’s president Herbert Strawbridge, “The extension of the interstate highway system had made possible the development of a new community in this area (Belden Village area). Before the highway came in this wasn’t even good farmland. Today, (1968) it is a valuable piece of property with a tremendous potential.”

The company’s intent was to own all the land and then sell parcels to other stores or developers. The same article reported that the Belden Village Higbee’s store was 185,000 square feet and Sears purchased 20 acres for its new store. The remaining 30 acres would be developed by the Visconsi Company, developers from the Cleveland area. Those 30 acres would become the Belden Village Shopping Center with 50 to 65 stores.

This a 1975 photo of the I-77 off ramp coming onto Whipple. The land on either side of the ramp is still undeveloped.

Leveling 100 acres for the mall included Day wrote, “moving sand and gravel in and out of an area of 2.5 million cubic yards of swamp and gravel at a 1968 cost of $3.8 million.”

Day wrote years later after Belden Village was open and successful, “The rest is history. The Jackson Township area has the best parks and schools in the Canton area. Today, there are at least 600 to 800 businesses that call Jackson Township home. The trustees of Jackson Township made all this possible by their devotion to their community. Many of them have passed but there wouldn’t be a Belden Village if it wasn’t for them.”

While Day did not mention the trustees by name, at the time Belden Village was in planning stages Dale Corbett, Joe Stephen and Melvin Rohr were trustees in 1967. Dale Corbett, Paul J. McCormick and Melvin Rohr were trustees in 1969 during the building and Dale Corbett, Paul J. McCormick and Robert Rogers were trustees in 1970 when the mall opened.

A photo from 1975 of the off ramp traffic exiting onto Whipple and it also shows how different the intersection of Whipple and Everhard looked then.

Day also wrote about Higbee’s donating a site for a fire station which became Jackson Township’s Fire Station 4 first located where an oil change company is located now on Belden Village Avenue. That station would eventually be relocated to where it is today on the corner of University Drive and Dressler Road.

According to Day, the Higbee Company put in all the structural improvements for the mall such as sewers, storm sewers and a lake. The company also put in Belden Village Avenue, Higbee Avenue, Holiday Street and the extension of Dressler Road. The Higbee Company worked with the Stark County Commissioners and those roads are now maintained by Stark County Engineers.

“In 1969, Whipple Avenue was a two-lane road,” said Stark County Engineer Keith Bennett. “When the ramps opened on I-77, the road was widened to accommodate ramp traffic. Dressler ended at Everhard before the mall was built. It was extended to Belden Village Street by 1972. Belden Village Street was built in 1969. The Whipple Avenue and Everhard Road intersection has become the second busiest in the county.”

Other developments in the Belden Village area included Stark State College which opened in 1960. While Kent State University was serving students at other locations in Stark County long before the any of its buildings were constructed, the campus itself was opened on January 7, 1966.

Eventually a strip mall opened close to the Belden Village Mall which would include a department store as the anchor store back in 1968, the popular chain store was called Gold Circle. The land for this strip mall was owned by the Belden family.

The next article in the series will look at the growth of the mall and surrounding area and the economic impact Belden Village Mall has had on the county.

*Greg Weekly of The Jackson Township Historical Society provided all of the reference material for the Higbee Company articles and quotes.