It’s rare that we encounter a shopping mall in such a terrible condition as this one. We were headed south in March 2008 and enroute we discovered the gem of Phoenix Village Mall. Opened in 1970, Phoenix Village Mall was not only the first mall in Fort Smith but also the first in all of Arkansas. Unfortunately, though, after several decades of co-existence with Fort Smith’s other mall, Central Mall, Phoenix Village has died a slow, protracted death and is currently waiting for its date with the wrecking ball.
Fort Smith is a regional manufacturing center, transportation hub, and anchor city of a large area of west-central Arkansas and east-central Oklahoma. With a population of 80,000 and almost 300,000 in its trade area, Fort Smith is the largest blip on the radar between Little Rock and Oklahoma City.
Most of Fort Smith’s current retail scene is along the Rogers Avenue/AR 22 corridor, home to many strip malls, box stores, and chain restaurants as well as Fort Smith’s current successful mall, Central Mall. However, a secondary retail strip exists on the south side of town along Towson Avenue, and at the intersection of Towson and Phoenix lies the nearly-defunct Phoenix Village Mall.
Phoenix Village Mall’s history dates back as far as the late 1950s, when local developer Jewel Morris began looking for a site to consolidate his two furniture stores. He settled on a site on the northwest corner of Towson and Phoenix and purchased the land from a ”General Store” owner who was puzzled why anyone would want to locate a store so far from downtown. By the 1960s, another developer, Howard Gentry signed on, and the two worked to develop a 100,000 square-foot center for the growing suburban population. This center opened in 1961 anchored by TG&Y discount store and a Piggly Wiggly supermarket.
The center proved a success, so Morris and Gentry decided to expand and purchased 35 adjoining acres to the site, which more than quadrupled its footprint. During the process, 35 houses were relocated to nearby Pocola, Oklahoma. They proposed a suburban outdoor “Village” concept, which consisted of a U-shaped set of buildings, but quickly discovered that they could be even more daring and scrapped those plans. Instead, they set out to build the state of Arkansas’ first enclosed mall.
In 1969, the first anchor store opened at the new Phoenix Village Mall, a Woolco store. The mall itself opened in 1970, and throughout the 1970s the mall had Beall Ladymon, two local department stores (Hunt’s and Greg’s) as well as Hancock Fabrics. In 1979, Woolco closed and was replaced with Venture, and in 1980 an expansion to the mall added 139,000 square feet, bringing the total size of the mall to 489,000 square feet. Meanwhile, the 864,000 square foot Central Mall opened three miles away, yet interestingly both malls would compete head-to-head for nearly three decades.
Phoenix Village Mall continued to be successful into the 1980s, until 1987 when a deal was struck to sell the mall to an out of state investor. The deal was to close on Black Monday, the day the stock market crashed, and the next day the sale fell through. In addition to that problem, the bank that Morris and Gentry used to finance the project called in their loan and forced them to go into Chapter 11 bankruptcy until they could secure a buyer. They lined up a buyer, but the buyer’s financing fell through as well, and the bank foreclosed. Before the buyer’s financing fell through, the buyer began encouraging stores in the mall to leave because they announced plans to tear down the mall for redevelopment. Even though the buyer ultimately went away, the damage had been done, and the mall was left with a high vacancy rate into the 1990s.
In the early 1990s, original owners Morris and Gentry once again were able to assume ownership of the mall and reinvigorate it to 92% occupancy. This success sailed on for several years, until the mall’s age and ultimately, competition, sealed its fate as a dead mall. In 1998, the mall’s main anchor, Venture, went out of business and liquidated all stores, leaving a gaping wound on the south end of Phoenix Village Mall. Stores began to defect, and in 2004 the partnership attempted to unload the mall again, and this time there were talks of wooing popular tenant Target to the site. However, financing fell through again and in November 2005 the bank foreclosed once again and the local partnership lost the mall once again, this time probably for good.
Meanwhile, in 1999 Central Mall embarked on a redesign which repositioned it as not only the best mall in Fort Smith, but the anchor to Fort Smith’s main shopping corridor which extends east of Central Mall along Rogers Avenue.
2005 also saw the rapid departure of 30 some stores, as the mall emptied out rapidly amid rumors of redevelopment and its current state of disrepair. A spring storm damaged the mall’s roof and it was not repaired; pools of water now collect in the cavernous, unrenovated interior. As of 2006, the only tenants left in the mall were a non-profit religious group, two surgery centers, a bank, and a barber shop. All of these have outdoor access, except for the barber shop which is just inside one of the mall entrances.
We visited Phoenix Village Mall in March 2008 and were amazed at the state of disrepair. It appeared the mall was being prepped for demolition, as many of the interior corridors had been stripped of their flooring and some fixtures were also visibly altered. We gained access to the mall at the only unlocked entrance, which we quickly learned was only meant to access the barber shop and the bank. There is also intact signage from the Venture store, which closed in 1998. Beyond these businesses, the corridor was blocked by yellow tape indicating the mall was closed. We attempted to take a few pictures, and even “go around” the tape, but the ”friendly” man working in the barber shop appeared and promptly kicked us out even after we requested politely to take a few pictures for this site. Sad. So, although we apologize for the dearth of interior pictures on this page, there are a few more featured on flickr. As usual, let us know what you think.