With a population just over 50,000 in the city and over 300,000 people in its metropolitan area, Charleston is not only the seat of state government but also the largest city in the state of West Virginny. In its early days, Charleston grew and prospered due to manufacturing and deposits of natural resources such as salt, coal, and natural gas; however, today the diversified economy of West Virginia includes more than these natural resources and has expanded and shifted to focus on trade, medicine, and government. This transition, however, hasn’t exactly been smooth, and parts of Charleston have experienced periods of both blight and renewal.
By the early 1980s, Charleston’s downtown was in dire need of a makeover due to a changing economy taking hard-earned dollars away from the area and taking its toll on the physical structure of the city as a result. To help Charleston out, the largest urban mall east of the Mississippi River was constructed along several blocks downtown and was completed in November 1983, along with other new developments that would encourage growth. Charleston Town Center opened with four department store spaces and almost one million square feet of retail space, on three levels. In addition, the mall is attached to a 350-room Marriott hotel which serves downtown business and convention-goers.
Charleston Town Center has enjoyed a significant amount of success largely due to its location and accessibility. Charleston benefitted tremendously from the signing of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which placed Charleston at the hub of three interstates (64, 77, and 79) which allow for fast passage through West Virginia’s rough and rugged terrain, connecting it to cities in the Midwest, South, and Northeast; in fact, 60% of the United States population is within a day’s drive of Charleston. This location of the interstates has allowed Charleston to retain its status as the hub for its regional retail market, which stretches across much of central West Virginia, and all of these interstates converge close to the mall with easy access. In addition, planners were wise to build ample, cheap ($1.75 all day as of 2008 with 4000 spaces) parking structures to serve the mall’s accessibility so shoppers aren’t as frustrated trying to find a place to put their cars.
However, being hemmed in the middle of an urban core has also presented disadvantages and inconveniences for shoppers, and possibly the mall itself. Most of the big box retail strip, chain restaurants, and other such novelties are located a fair distance from the mall along US 119 southwest of downtown, about 5 miles from the mall. So, unlike many retail markets where the mall is located as the focus for big box strip fodder and shoppers can make the rounds easily, shoppers in Charleston do double duty to visit both big box/strip mall retailers and the mall itself. Furthermore, although parking is relatively cheap and convenient in the structures at the mall, most suburban malls, by nature, have tons of free parking, so this may frustrate some shoppers here. It hasn’t seemed to have made a significant dent in sales, though, as this is clearly Charleston’s dominant mall and has a solid store base with limited vacancies.
The design of Charleston Town Center is a mostly two-level straight shot on a north-south axis, with a third level tacked onto the center court which functions as the mall’s food court, Picnic Place. Picnic Place made headlines in 2004 when mall management refused to renew the leases for two food court tenants – McDonald’s and Long John Silver’s – because management felt that more healthy options should be made available, and also because they wanted to reconfigure the food court. In the end, the food stalls were relegated to about half of the food court space on the third level, and offices were put in the other half. At least the Greek/Mediterranean place is still there. The center court is also the mall’s most impressive feature, with a wide, bright atrium and a maze-like fountain on the first level with a kiosk Starbucks as the centerpiece. Interestingly, a major renovation of Charleston Town Center has only taken place once, in 1992, so the mall today is somewhat dated.
Charleston Town Center’s store mix is solid, with many popular – and even somewhat upscale – national brands like Hollister, Abercrombie and Fitch, Talbots, AE, and the like. The mall has two anchor pads on each end, which are currently occupied by Macy’s and Sears on the south end and JCPenney and Steve and Barry’s on the north end of the mall. Until 2001, one of the south anchors was Montgomery Ward, and after its closure the property sat vacant until 2007 when it was sold to the mall, and sold again to BrickStreet Insurance, who took most of the former anchor space along with a dead Bob Evans. The space closest to the mall was converted into in-line stores on the first level, and Steve and Barry’s on the second level. Also, the current Macy’s was Pittsburgh-based Kaufmann’s until 2006.
We visited Charleston in July 2008 and took the pictures featured here. If you know any more about the history of the mall or the area, comments are always appreciated.