Laurel, Mississippi is a small city of about 20,000 residents located in the southeastern part of the state, with about 80,000 in the immediate micropolitan area. A considerable distance from other large cities in the south, Laurel is located along the I-59 corridor about 140 miles north of New Orleans and 200 miles southwest of Birmingham. The city is known for oil, manufacturing and agricultural-related endeavors, and is a quintessential example of the old-fashioned deep south.
Laurel’s relative distance from other cities requires a substantial retail presence in town. The nearest larger city is Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with a population of about 40,000. Hattiesburg is about thirty miles south of Laurel on I-59 and is home to a large regional mall called The Mall at Turtle Creek, and a huge retail strip. Built in 1995, The Mall at Turtle Creek draws shoppers from all over southeast Mississippi and is the most substantial mall in the entire region. It even replaced an older enclosed mall, the Cloverleaf Mall, on the other side of Hattiesburg which has recently repurposed itself into a mixed-use office/retail complex.
But Laurel does indeed have a mall. Sawmill Square Mall opened on the site of a former sawmill (who’d have guessed?) sometime in the 1970s. The mall is anchored by Belk, JCPenney, and a huge pile of logs. Just kidding about that last one. The Belk was recently a mid-range department store from Jackson, Miss. called McRae’s, and got eaten up by Belk in March 2006. You can sort of see some of the McRae’ labelscar on the Belk photo above.
The decor of Sawmill Square is sort of modeled after a sawmill, or at least what people in the 1970s thought a sawmill would look like if it was turned into a mall. And this was apparently the case, as one of Laurel’s largest sawmills once stood on the site. We’re not sure what, if any, of the original mill still stands in the current mall structure though. There are lots of exposed beams and latticework, with dark tiling and wooden facades everywhere. The mall obviously hasn’t received a major update in its lifespan, a rare find these days.
The selection of stores at Sawmill Square seems adequate enough for a city its size, but locals apparently disagree. I wouldn’t exactly call this a dead mall per se, as it seemed mostly leased with at least a decent amount of national retailers. It was also packed on the Saturday evening I visited. But on the other hand, I kind of see their point; many local stores inhabit the mall, (some of my favorites are in the photos) and several national retailers have relocated to a “newer” strip near a Wal-Mart Supercenter and Lowes and just ignore the mall completely. Even so, the mall’s pretty substantial, and although a renovation of the mall would kill its awesome 1970s decor and vintage character, it would probably lure even more shoppers and retailers alike.
Take a look at these pictures from March 2008 and let us know what you think. If you can provide more information about the mall, that would be great too. When exactly did it open? Also, if you’re familiar with the mall be sure to leave some of your own personal stories and anecdotes.