The following submission came to us from Michael Winford of Michigan. If you have any questions about his submission or wish to contact him, please email him here.
The Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Michigan opened in October 1979. The mall was built on the site of a former apple orchard, giving it its name. The location of The Orchards Mall is less than a mile from Interstate 94. In 1979, when the mall opened, most of the area surrounding the mall was vacant or farmland. Benton Harbor is located next to the city of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor’s twin city, home of The Whirlpool Corporation.
Prior to the opening of The Orchards Mall, locals from Benton Harbor and St. Joseph shopped at Fairplain Plaza. The plaza was located less than a mile away from The Orchards Mall. Fairplain Plaza was the usual open air plaza of the 60’s/70’s era. When The Orchards Mall opened the Plaza was still doing decent, but past its prime. The plaza featured a Woolworth, Goldblatts, as well as a Kroger grocery store, Rite Aid Drug store, a five screen cinema, and a Big Boy restaurant. A good handful of merchants made the move from the plaza to the mall. Other merchants would continue to move from the plaza to the mall in the years to come, leaving the plaza to become a ghost town by the late 1980’s.
When Orchards Mall opened it featured three anchor stores: J.C. Penney, Sears and Walgreen’s. J.C. Penney and Sears both moved from their downtown Benton Harbor locations. Downtown Benton Harbor had been seeing some large economic decline for some time. Also located in the mall was York Steakhouse along with approximately 10 food outlets in the food court. Adjacent to the food court was an arcade.
The Orchards Mall has always been a mid scale mall, nothing too fancy. No fountains or marble and only one story. The mall used to have quite a bit of live plants and trees indoors, but over the years they have all disappeared, most likely due to cost cutting measures. There are four entrances that lead directly into the mall, with about 60 to 70 retail spaces. The Orchards Mall has always featured a food court, something that didn’t become common in malls until the 1980’s. The mall’s color scheme was the typical 70’s/80’s brown and orange. I remember my parents taking my brother and I there quite often, especially during back to school time and Christmas. I remember the shiny brown tile on the floor and the orange fabric on the benches. There was also something like a dugout in front of J.C. Penney. This was always a fun place to play as a kid. This dugout area was where they would have special events such as Santa at Christmas time.
The mall remained quite busy throughout the 1980’s. The closest malls are the University Park Mall in Mishawaka, IN located about 40 miles southwest and Crossroads Mall located in Portage, MI about 47 miles east of Benton Harbor. With both malls being so far away, they were not too much of a threat to Orchards. By the late 1980’s the poverty and crime from downtown Benton Harbor started to carry over into the area of the mall. It didn’t become a major problem until the mid to late 1990’s when things really started to take a turn for the worst.
Over the years the mall featured many stores including Gap,County Seat, The Hang Up, Baker Shoes, Fox Jewelers, Carlton Cards, Glamour Shots, Card America, Hallmark, Chess King, Kinney Shoe store, Famous Foot ware, So Fro Fabrics, Jean Nicole, Lerner New York, Banner Books, Foot Locker, Spencer’s, Recordtown, Camelot, FYE, Imperial Sports, Hickory Farms, K B Toys, Gordon’s Jewelry Store, The Original Cookie, Sherman’s Ice Cream, Afterthoughts, Command Performance, Regis, Candy Candy, Foxmoore, Richman’s, Gem Dandy’s,Casual Corner, Shoe Sensation, Factory Brand Shoes, Thom McAn Shoes, The Buckle, Radio Shack, The Great Steak and Potato Company, and Subway.
York Steakhouse went out of business in the mid to late 1980’s. That location sat empty until around 1990 when Bonanza filled that spot. A year or two later Bonanza changed it’s name to Ponderosa Steakhouse. Ponderosa stuck around until the mid 1990’s when they closed their doors. Walgreen’s moved out of the mall in the early 90’s when they built a bigger location about a 1/4 mile down the road from the mall. The former Walgreen’s location remained vacant for quite a few years. In the early 1990’s a few empty store fronts became visible, but the mall was still running at least at a 70/80 percent occupancy rate.
A little hope for The Orchards Mall came when Elder Beerman, a department store from Dayton, Ohio, announced plans to build a store connecting to the mall. Some said Elder Beerman was a bit too upscale for the mall, while others were happy to see a third anchor store moving in. The Elder Beerman store opened in the fall of 1992. The store was much nicer than the J.C. Penney and Sears at Orchards Mall as well as a little bit pricier than the two other anchor stores. Prior to the opening of the Elder Beerman store the mall underwent a major renovation. The mall was completely re tiled in white, mauve, and teal flooring. The dugout areas were filled in to be made level with the rest of the mall’s surface. All the orange fabric benches were removed, and were replaced with oak benches. Palm trees were placed throughout the mall and new tables and chairs were put in the food court. With the remodel complete and 3 anchor stores in the mall it seemed the Orchards Mall was making a bit of a come back, which unfortunately only lasted for a few years.
By the mid to late 1990’s the crime and poverty from downtown made its way into the area of the mall. Robberies in surrounding businesses drove away customers. The Aldi store located on an outlot near the mall was robbed at gun point, and the manager at a Red Lobster located in an outlot right in front of J.C. Penney was murdered. Shortly after the murder at Red Lobster, Darden, the parent company of Red Lobster, chose to close this location, leaving the building empty. All of this was not good business for the mall, and many shoppers started driving to the two other malls which were a ways away but were in better areas, with more stores to offer. There were also a few reports of muggings of mall shoppers in the parking lot. The 3 anchor stores remained through the 1990’s, but many of the smaller stores in the mall closed their doors.
By 2000, the mall was only running at about a 50% occupancy rate, and most of the national chains within the mall had closed their doors for good. One exception was Bath and Body Works, which opened in the mall around the mid 2000’s. In the late 2000’s Jo Ann fabrics moved into the mall, filling the former Walgreen’s space and overflowing into a few of the neighboring vacant stores. It took the mall nearly 15 to 20 years to fill the former Walgreen’s location. For a brief time, The Orchards Mall boasted 4 anchor stores, although many of the stores in the mall remained vacant.
In 2009 Sears announced they would not be renewing their lease and closed their doors, leaving the mall with only 3 anchor stores. The owner of the Sears building was a different owner than the rest of the mall. The owner of the former Sears building decided to donate the building to a local church. The owners of the mall tried to fight it, but they lost the fight and the building was awarded to the church. Because of this situation, there is no hope for the mall to attract another anchor store to that location. The Sears optical and driving school still remain but they moved into empty stores in the mall near J.C. Penney.
The Buckle closed their doors in January 2010 as well as B. Dalton bookstore. As of February 2011 the 3 anchor stores still remain. J.C. Penney is in desperate need of updating, dirty carpet that looks worn out in spots, mismatched linoleum that looks like it has been there since the early 1990’s.
Also, the decor in the mall continues to show its age with a bland color scheme from the 1990’s. All of the live plants are gone, and some of the oak benches look like they have seen better days. The Orchards Mall has not seen any updating in almost two decades. The food court is a very sad site with only one food outlet remaining – a small independent Mexican restaurant and some vending machines placed in front of the former Sherman’s ice cream location. Most of the tables and chairs have been removed, since they are no longer needed.
Beyond the 3 remaining anchor stores the national chains that are still currently located inside the mall are AT&T, GNC, Payless ShoeSource, The Finish Line, Bath and Body Works, Rainbow Fashions, Claire’s, Deb, Zales, and Man Alive. I believe this mall was one of the first locations for The Man Alive mens store chain. That most likely explains why they are still open at this location. Most of the mall storefronts are empty and a handful of the empty locations are now spaces for non for profit organizations to raise awareness for their cause. There are also a few independent retailers in the mall such as a travel agency, a nail boutique, a store called This N That, a store called Odds and Ends, and a cowboy/leather store called Off the Edge, just to give you an idea of what type of interesting independent stores this mall has to offer.
I very rarely go to this mall anymore due to the lack of what they have to offer. I drive about 47 miles in the opposite direction to The Crossroads Mall located in Portage, Michigan. I did, however, make a trip to the Orchards Mall yesterday and that is when the current pictures were taken. It’s sad to see this mall die such a slow and painful death. I wish there was some type of redevelopment plan in the works, but, no word of that. The future of the mall doesn’t look too bright, with the poverty and crime levels still somewhat high for the Benton Harbor area. Michigan also has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. I figure they will just let the mall continue to die with its empty store fronts and 1990’s decor. As for J.C. Penney, Elder Beerman, and Jo Ann Fabrics, I don’t see them putting much money into these stores in the near future. On the same token, if it wasn’t for these 3 anchor stores I believe this mall would have closed a long time ago. Lucky for the mall, these 3 anchor stores still remain, but who knows for how long?
I have included some pictures of The Orchards Mall, some from the past and some from the present day. I apologize for the glare on a few of the pics but I had to take a picture of pictures of the mall’s past. If anyone has any more info or pics of the mall I’d love to hear from you. I was born in 1981 so I was just a child in the 1980’s. I tried to do some research about this mall but wasn’t able to find much on the Internet. Most of what I have written had to come from memory and from family and friends who were around before the mall’s opening.
Prangeway: I’ve also been to this mall several times. The first time was over ten years ago when Caldor and I visited together, and we were amazed, even then, at the lackluster offerings. I haven’t been back in recent years, but from the looks of it the mall has gone downhill fast. Now that Sears has departed, I fear that the situation here is grim. One comment on Yelp regarding this mall sums it up pretty succinctly:
“Sorry to be so harsh, but this is the worst mall I’ve ever seen. Only about 40% of the stores are actually occupied, there are shady characters constantly roaming around, and the last time I was there there was a petting zoo with animals peeing all over the floors. Honestly, I will never go back if I can help it.”
What’s most interesting to me about this area are the demographics and the sharp juxtaposition between Benton Harbor and its twin city, St. Joseph. The two cities are similar in size and located next to one another, on either side of the St. Joseph River, yet otherwise they’re completely different. St. Joseph is 90% white, and has a vibrant downtown commercial district with many shops and restaurants, and is popular with tourists. Benton Harbor is 90% black, and while the downtown has experienced a nascent renaissance of sorts, it’s not yet to the level of St. Joseph. Furthermore, Benton Harbor has been frought with socioeconomic problems and blight. For such a small city, Benton Harbor has been dealt a fiercely hard blow, especially as the economy of Michigan at large suffers with stagnation and unemployment at a pace greater than the national level.
While The Orchards Mall and its surrounding retail corridor is commonly thought to be in Benton Harbor, it is actually in Benton Charter Township, not in the city itself. Benton Charter Township is an incorporated township with home-rule advantages, making it as separate from the city of Benton Harbor as can be. The demographics of Benton Charter Township indicate a 50/50 split between blacks and whites, and the income levels are more favorable. In addition to the large retail district around the mall, Whirlpool Corporation is also within the township. If these entities were within Benton Harbor itself, the addition to the tax base would probably help the city recover greatly.
As far as other retail competition, there are the two better malls Michael indicated, both located about 40 miles away near Kalamazoo and South Bend, Indiana. There’s also another mall in Michigan City, Indiana, also about 40 miles away, but that mall isn’t anything anyone would drive that distance for, and we’ve featured it here. Michigan City also has a popular outlet mall, though, and both Grand Rapids and Chicago are located an hour to an hour and a half away. In addition, downtown St. Joseph also has many popular shops and restaurants that attract both locals and tourists alike.
The Orchards Mall also suffers from a small trade area, serving only Berrien County. With a population of 160,000, Berrien County isn’t large enough to sustain a regional mall anymore, especially as it’s hemmed in on two sides by better malls just 40 minutes away. Even though super-regional malls like the ones in South Bend and Kalamazoo continue to have success, smaller malls like this one have fallen out of favor on a national level.
As always, feel free to leave your own comments about The Orchards Mall.
Elsewhere on the web:
Vintage photos of Orchards Mall (Taken as photos of photos in March 2011 by Michael Winford):
Photos from March 2011 (Taken by Michael Winford):