Lancaster, Ohio is a small city in central Ohio, located about 30 miles southeast of Columbus. With a population of about 40,000, Lancaster has grown significantly in recent decades as it has transformed from a mostly rural community to Columbus exurb. Suburban sprawl now exists along the entire corridor between Columbus and Lancaster, and US 33 was recently upgraded to an expressway between the cities. Lancaster was recently featured in the book The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America due to an active fine arts community and an annual music festival, drawing artists and musicians from around the world each summer. Aside from an active, historic downtown that has recently been revitalized, most of Lancaster’s modern retail is located along the Memorial Drive/Business 33 strip to the northeast of downtown, and this strip itself is anchored by River Valley Mall. Opened in October 1987, River Valley Mall was originally anchored by Columbus-based Lazarus, Youngstown-originated Hills, JCPenney, Sears, and Dayton-based Elder-Beerman. River Valley Mall has 80 stores and 569,461 square feet of retail space in total, with 308,877 square feet in the anchor stores.
Over the past 23 years, River Valley Mall has anchored the retail strip on the northeast side of Lancaster, and has spawned a critical mass of big box plazas and chain restaurants along the Memorial Drive corridor. Along the mall’s ring road are a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant, Best Buy, Applebee’s, IHOP, Office Max, Target, Red Lobster, and Hobby Lobby. Directly across the street from the mall are even more restaurants and chain stores, including Bob Evans, White Castle, Taco Bell, Olive Garden, Hampton Inn and Pier One Imports. Strip malls also exist around River Valley Mall, including the Hocking Valley Mall down the street anchored by Kroger and K-Mart. Was this ever enclosed?
Although there have been several anchor changes at River Valley Mall, the interior of the mall remains largely the same as when it opened. In 1999, Hills became Connecticut-based Ames when Ames bought Hills. Then, in early 2002, Ames closed their River Valley Mall store in one of the last rounds of closures before the entire chain folded. This anchor remained dark until 2006 when it was filled by Steve and Barry’s, who closed at the end of 2008, leaving it dark once again. As of April 2010 it is still vacant.
River Valley Mall’s eastern anchor, which opened as Lazarus in 1987, became Lazarus-Macy’s in 2003 and finally just Macy’s in 2005 when parent company Federated decided to use the more popular, nationally-known Macy’s nameplate, phasing out Federated’s regional names in the process. A couple years later, Federated decided this Macy’s was not profitable enough and closed it in 2007. However, in March 2010, River Valley Mall’s owner Glimcher announced that a Dick’s Sporting Goods would open in the former Macy’s space in November 2010, giving the mall four out of five anchors. A Dunham’s already operates as a mini-anchor in the mall, and they can’t be happy about this at all.
The Dick’s Sporting Goods opening will also help the perception of many that River Valley Mall is struggling, according to a spokesperson for River Valley’s management. In recent years, a number of vacancies have popped up in the mall, perhaps a result of the economy, the mall’s lack of recent renovations, competition from better malls in Columbus, or a combination of all of these factors. Despite this, though, mini-anchor Old Navy opened in mid-2009 inside the mall, and the mall continues to mostly thrive with mid-level stalwarts like Victoria’s Secret and American Eagle, as well as a ten-screen Regal Cinemas.
The decor and layout of River Valley Mall is decidedly of its era – the late 1980s. The white latticework ceiling pattern, reflective ceiling tiles, lack of kiosks and full-size fountains are a time warp in today’s era of carpeting, comfy seating, warm colors and kiosks. The layout is uniquely complex for a one level mall, and features a neat loop around the food court area where the mall turns.
I visited River Valley Mall in August 2009 and took the pictures featured here. If you have any stories to fill us in on regarding River Valley Mall’s history or just some thoughts to add, feel free to leave a comment or two.