Martinsburg Mall; Martinsburg, West Virginia

Martinsburg, West Virginia is located in the fast-growing eastern panhandle of the state.  With a population of 17,000, Martinsburg is the hub of the eastern panhandle and the county seat of Berkeley County.  It’s also part of a larger corridor that stretches along I-81, linking the Shenandoah Valley to western Maryland, including the cities of Winchester, Virginia and Hagerstown, Maryland.  Recently, the eastern panhandle of West Virginia has become subject to an influx of new residents from the more populated and nearby Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area.

Martinsburg was a relative late-comer to the mall scene, for a few reasons.  First off, malls were built in nearby Hagerstown in 1974, and in Winchester in 1982.  Both cities are a short 20-minute drive from Martinsburg.  In addition, Martinsburg simply didn’t have the population to support a mall until fairly recently.  As late as 1990, Berkeley County only had about half the residents it does today.

In the late 1980s, Pennsylvania mall developer Crown American decided Martinsburg could support a mall, independent of the offerings in nearby Winchester and Hagerstown.  At the time, the quiet economy of the eastern panhandle of West Virginia was projected to soar with new businesses (like United Airlines) moving in to capitalize on West Virginia’s business-friendly tax model in tandem with the close proximity to both Washington and Baltimore, which are both about 80 miles away. The anticipated business growth was expected to fuel a massive population boom in Martinsburg, and this eventually did happen; however, it was not because of the business growth that never really materialized, but due to planning policies supporting the massive growth of exurbs and suburban sprawl.  The population in the eastern panhandle grew mostly from commuters who were priced out of the Washington/Baltimore markets, wanted more house for their money, a pastoral rural setting, lower crime and taxes, more space, better schools, or any or all of the above.  To support this growth, MARC  began daily regional train service from Martinsburg, ferrying commuters into Union Station in downtown Washington.

Crown American’s Martinsburg Mall debuted in 1991, located west of downtown directly along I-81.   When it opened, the mall was anchored by Wal-Mart, JCPenney, Sears, and Allentown-based Hess’s, with space for about 60 additional retailers, and, according to ICSC, 556,000 square feet in total.  Interestingly, Crown American owned Hess’s at the time, so putting a store here was a natural fit. This one level mall also features a food court, and was Crown American’s signature period mall design,  similar to the centers they built in Lancaster (which we’ve featured on this site) and Newark, Ohio.  All of these malls are designed with two main hallways and a “loop” at one end containing the food court area.

However, unlike some of Crown American’s other malls, Martinsburg Mall was never notably successful.  Wal-Mart was always big draw, especially in the mall’s early days when Wal-Marts were new to the national scene.  Initially scared about the presence of a new mall in Martinsburg, the malls in both Winchester and Hagerstown fared much better than expected with their brand new competition.  Also, both Winchester and Hagerstown built extensive retail strip areas and large power centers surrounding each of their malls, which became regional draws in themselves.  By comparison, Martinsburg had fewer ancillary retail centers; so, even though Martinsburg had the mall, area residents still went to either Winchester or Hagerstown to do other shopping.

In 1994, Crown American sold off its Hess’s stores, and the Martinsburg Mall location became a Bon Ton.

Wal-Mart made a contentious decision affecting Martinsburg Mall in 1998, and it became an obvious wound to the center.  Wal-Mart renovated its store into a Supercenter format that year, and subsequently shut their entrance to the mall entirely.  Because Wal-Mart likely owns their parcel separate from the mall, this decision was apparently allowed with no say from Crown American.  I’m sure W-M probably even studied that their loss would be mitigated by not operating two separate entrances, and that they’d continue to do business there just fine, but this has to be annoying and inconvenient for shoppers who value convenience and want to visit other businesses in the mall.  If it’s snowing, raining, too cold, or too hot outside I’m sure people would have appreciated the connection.  Wal-Mart continues to be the most popular destination at Martinsburg Mall, and requiring shoppers to go outside and go back in to visit any of the other stores, to me, seems kind of rude.  I’m sure it was a major blow to the mall itself, dropping foot traffic considerably.  Here’s Wal-Mart’s former mall entrance – they boarded it up and put up a mystery structure to tease us:

In 1999, Hagerstown’s Valley Mall embarked upon a major expansion project, adding a wing of stores and a new Hecht’s (later Macy’s), Old Navy, and a multiplex cinema.  As I mentioned earlier, big box power centers and retail strip began to pop up in Hagerstown, and in Winchester, but not so much in Martinsburg.  Visiting popular national stores like Target, Kohls, Petsmart, Borders, Circuit City, Office Max and Dicks required driving to Hagerstown and/or Winchester, and probably helped the malls in those cities due to synergy.  This same lack of synergy disallowed Martinsburg Mall to reach its full potential, if it had any to begin with.

By the 2000s, the outlook for Martinsburg Mall continued to be bleak, though far from completely dead.  In 2004, Crown American was sold to another Pennsylvania company, PREIT, who promptly unloaded Martinsburg Mall and a bunch of other “non-core assets”. The mall’s new owner, Lightstone Group, operated the mall under its subsidiary Prime Retail, and ended up defaulting on the mall by 2008, returning it to its lender in early 2009.

Meanwhile, the retail synergy that Martinsburg Mall hoped to possibly capture finally came in the form of a massive power center that opened in 2009, an exit south of the mall and on the other side of I-81.  The Commons, owned by AIG Baker, is a multi-anchor power center featuring Target, Best Buy, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Books-a-Million, Five Below, Staples, Michaels, TJ Maxx, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Petsmart, with many smaller stores and restaurants to boot.  The Commons is clearly a slap in the face to Martinsburg Mall, who would have probably gladly welcomed some of those tenants.  On the other hand, the growing WV panhandle probably appreciates not having to drive 20 minutes to Winchester or Hagerstown to shop anymore.

In early 2010, Mountain State University, based in Beckley, West Virginia, a considerable distance from Martinsburg, bought the mall from receivership with plans to expand into the mall and hold classes there. MSU had already operated a Martinsburg campus from a former outlet mall it purchased in 1999.  As of early 2011, though, the campus has not yet moved from its current location into Martinsburg Mall.

Today, Martinsburg Mall is far from dead, and seemingly not in rapid decline.  Yet, the offerings here have always been meager, and it seems though for its size it isn’t – and hasn’t ever – reached its full potential.  Maybe Martinsburg didn’t need a mall – even despite all its growth there are two formidable ones only twenty minutes away, and the entire Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area is just over an hour’s drive.  There are still national stores here, but also quite a bit of vacancy.  The college hopes that synergy can be achieved by opening up disused parts of the mall to classes, and that’s not a terrible idea.  College students are certainly an appropriate demographic for malls, so hopefully it’s not too late.

I visited Martinsburg Mall in April 2011 and took the pictures featured here.  I was very entertained by some of the folks at the mall, as well as by some of the local stores that operate here.  In the food court, one popular stand offering ice cream was named “55-60s Ice Cream” – not sure what that means, but it looked good.  Can anyone explain?  Also, look at this man, whose advertisement is placed on a dead storefront. He’s really excited about home improvement:

Also roving the mall the evening I visited were two very amorous young gay men and their female friend, who had no qualms about public displays of affection.  And giggling.  And lastly, not to get anyone in trouble, but the sight of the girl working the customer service/information booth totally engrossed in FarmVille on a giant, outdated CRT monitor made me giggle.  I actually always appreciate and absorb the people watching, culture, and local color in a mall, for better – or even sometimes – for worse.  It’s amusing, and it’s something that isn’t usually transferred by the myriad of strip or outdoor malls that lack public gathering spaces.  Food for thought. As always, feel free to leave your own comments and experiences concerning this mall.

Photos from April 2011:



19 Responses to “Martinsburg Mall; Martinsburg, West Virginia”

  1. It seems pretty interesting to me that a college is operating and managing the mall, I wonder what department could be responsible or if its even an entity separate from the college itself. Maybe it might be wise for them to hire a mall leasing agent/owner like CBL or GGP to manage it since it doesn’t seem like that would be in their realm of work.

    Otherwise, I don’t think there’s much hope that this mall will ever reach full potential in its current form which is a shame because it looks well kept. I wonder if turning the mall into a lifestyle center could make it viable once again?

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  2. @Gary, Jones Lang Lasalle actually runs the mall for the college.

    And lifestyle centers are garbage.

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    Rich Reply:

    @Prange Way, Malls have proven to be colossal white elephants that are difficult to repurpose as anything else without a great deal of expense. The lifestyle format is a better long-term investment, because you don’t have the expensive infrastructure and it’s relatively easy to reconfigure the spaces and structures.

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    Prange Way Reply:

    @Rich, I mostly agree with that, but I think there is a general short-sightedness in praxis when building many, but not all, lifestyle centers, and thats what I have a problem with. Also, there are plenty of what I’d call A-malls that are doing great, and not going anywhere.

    From a community/planning standpoint, one of the major sells of a lifestyle center is the mixed-use concept, ideally combining residential, commercial, entertainment, public community space, etc. But unfortunately, this ideal is not realized in many circumstances in order to promote what seems to be a fad in bricks and mortar retailing.

    I’ve definitely seen more lifestyle centers than not that are just simply half-assed. Sold as a lifestyle center, they breeze through a town’s permitting process with what seems to be little forethought or planning. Many are nothing more than strip malls or structures floating in a sea of parking lots with a gazebo or some other similarly cutesy thing awkwardly thrown in, at the same time lacking a cohesive pedestrian plan. What makes this different than a fancy strip mall?

    So, unfortunately, I’ve got to call bullshit on many of these fad lifestyle centers, masquerading as some newer, better type of retailing trend. Lots of these things are developers pulling the wool over our eyes, getting away with doing things cheaply in shoddily constructed ugly crap – and unfortunately, it shows.

    Of course, this isn’t true of all lifestyle centers, there are definitely plenty that have been well thought-out, and are gorgeous places with all the elements that should be there.

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    SEAN Reply:

    @Prange Way, You are so right it’s rediculous.

    A great example of a lifestyle center that succeeds is Easton Town Center in Columbus Ohio. It has all the esentials including residential, offices, hotels & even Trader Joes. Of course it also has most of the mall staples & even a few surprises along the way.

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    Tracey Staback Reply:

    @Prange Way, I agree with Prange Way. Lifestyle centers are garbage! I live in Colorado, and when I go shopping I don’t want to be freezing my “you know what” off in the winter or sweating in the summer, trying to get from one store to the other. Maybe nostalgia will set in for some of these builders in the future and we’ll be able to go back to indoor mall shopping.

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    Gary Reply:

    @Prange Way, according to the mall’s website, I see no mention of Jones Lang LaSalle despite that it apparently was a JLL site at one time and is only being used by the college. Furthermore, for the leasing agent position that they’re currently hiring for, I see it being directed to an email address at msumartinsburgmall.com rather than joneslanglasalle.com which made me wonder if the college was also doing the leasing.

    Finally, I agree that lifestyle centers are generally useless, but this mall is surrounded by two similar-sized malls only 20 minutes away and then you have the outlet centers in Hagerstown and Leesburg not to mention additional malls in Loudoun County and the Tysons Corner area. No surprise that this mall isn’t doing too well when all these malls and outlet centers are located off of major interstates to the south and east and the lack of synergy to this point has kept the retail climate in Martinsburg at a stagnant pace. The only other options at this point would be a lifestyle concept or a combination of an enclosed mall and lifestyle center. Maybe they could relocate all the stores in one wing and fill it up to full capacity and then demolish the food court and everything else towards the Bon-Ton, leaving that department store to stand alone. Then, they could build an outdoor lifestyle portion in the area where the food court was and connecting the existing mall to the Bon-Ton. Of course, it’s just an idea, but any plan that saves some part of the enclosed portion while increasing tenancy is good in my book.

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  3. I think it would be a great option for a college to move into a mall. I mean, for me (I go to a community college) it would be nice to go to real food joints without driving, or buy school supplies without getting ripped off, or just browsing around and people watching.

    Also vintage Subway neon sign for the win.

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  4. Is that REX tv and aplince in the photo ?
    I thought they were long gone.

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    Cathy Jones Reply:

    @Chris, It sure is, well was a Rex. The store is long gone and actually I’m kinda surprised the sign is still there.

    Funny thing about that Rex. Until last year my in-laws lived in Martinsburg and for a timeaccording to them the rumor around town was that local WRNR-AM 740 was going to take over that space or least have a studio there for their long time morning host Tom Tucker. Of course that never happened and thats a shame too since having Tucker do his program there could bring out the “curious” since there are those who believe that the Tom Tucker character on TV’s The Family Guy was based on.well Martinsburg’s Tom Tucker .I don’t buy it myself and I am sure fans of The Family Guy will debate it as well even though both Adam West and Seth MacFarlane have been known to had visited the region a few times over the years though I don’t think it has been recently.

    However with that being said Martinsburg Mall, despite the lack of shoppers much less upscale retail, the mall has over the years actually had some famous folks shop within its doors. My in-laws can remember seeing Mary Tyler Moore sitting in the food court by herself eating a sub at Subway. Dick Clark, porn actor Ron Jeremy, Dan Aykroyd & Donna Dixon ( her brother lives in nearby Winchester ), Erik Estrada, Wayne Newton, Lucie Arnaz, Susan Lucci, and Katie Couric have also been seen inside the Martinsburg Mall as well. I don’t get it either other than the fact many of these people ( except Clark & Jeremy ) were part of the Winchester Apple Blossom Festival. Maybe they visit this mall as some kind of a “brief getaway” from the crowds of the Bloom. Just a guess. Then again with the so few shoppers Martinsburg Mall has, well at least they don’t have to put up with those “..hey can I have your autograph?” people.either.

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  5. I went back and re-read this article. “… The population in the eastern panhandle grew mostly from commuters who were priced out of the Washington/Baltimore markets, wanted more house for their money, a pastoral rural setting, lower crime and taxes, more space, better schools, or any or all of the above…” The part about lower taxes and getting more house for the money is true but the other reasons..kinda debate those.

    Berekeley County Schools are actually quite bad as they really haven’t kept up to par with the growth in that community.Perfect example of this are the schools of Hedgesville and even Martinsburg’s own high school is so very dated.

    Meanwhile Martinsburg’s City Hospital dittos..as there is a shocking number of peole who live IN Martinsburg would rather go to Winchester or Hagerstown for health care.

    Crime..for the size of Martinsburg is quite bad too as there have already been a few murders takening place this already this year and besides Martinsburg is known as a “drug haven”, that was even featured on “COPS” some years back.. I will never forget that scene of that woman high on coke running half naked down Queen Street complete with a shot of a billboard that said “Berkeley’s Best..1340 WEPM”. What an image !!

    Also it needs to be pointed out that Berkeley County has no zoning laws whatsoever so really anybody can build anything anywhere Heck AIG Baker can put in one of those “gentlemen’s clubs” right next to Target in The Commons and there would nothing the county or even the other stores can say to stop it.

    .Meanwhile Martinsburg the town while they do have zoning its quite an open secret that if one is willing to do “special favors” for the town, Martinsburg will look the other way. Well I guess this stuff happens when one elects a taxi driver as mayor.

    Living in Martinsburg/Berkeley County is really like staying at a Motel 6 on vacation. Its cheap and one can save a few bucks..but you really do get what you paid for.

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  6. The Sears in the Martinsburg Mall is closing.

    From Winchester, Virginia’s ABC-TV 3…
    http://www.tv3winchester.com/home/headlines/Sears_to_Close_Martinsburg_Store_Cut_57_Jobs_121777559.html

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  7. I lived in Winchester between 2000 and 2006. I think I only went into Martinsburg twice, and never of my own free will, so I never experienced this little gem. That said, I can say it’s pretty horrifying when your mall can be compared unfavorably to the Apple Blossom Mall.

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    Boyd Reply:

    @BGM,

    Funny thing about Winchester’s Apple Blossom Mall. When plans were first annouced 30 years ago for the mall, what Winchester had it mind and what was planned at the time wasn’t exactly how it turned out.

    At first Apple Blossom Mall was to a two story, 175 store mall with four anchors ( Sears, Leggett, JC Penney and Hechts even.though at the time WINC radio had reported that the 4th anchor would be Miller & Rhodes ). Of course THAT Apple Blossom Mall never did became a realty, instead what Winchester & Frederick County received instead was a mall that was half the size of what was orignally planned.

    What happened was the Rosehill Estate. Rosehill was a small southern-style mansion located at what is now the Martins Supermarket on Pleasant Valley Road right next door to Apple Blossom Mall. In short the Rosehill family would NOT sell their land to Apple Blossom Mall because the felt Winchester didn’t need “..another damn store !!”. Oddly enough several years later the Rosehill family DID sell their land and house to a developer who went on to build a Walmart & Martins on their former property.

    Having lived in Winchester from 1976 til 1992 and looking back now, even had the Rosehill family sold their land to Apple Blossom Mall, I doubt that “mega mall” would had been built anyway since at the time Winchester was still in control of several businessmen and ultra rich families who as my dad would say “the boys in in the band” who would stop anything that gave a HINT of hurting THEIR business. Talk about power !!

    For example Cornwells TV a very small TV store on South Loudoun Street that was owned by the late Harold Cornwell and Bonnie Miller who thanks to their “millions” had not only prevented Circuit City from entering Winchester in the late 80’s but they done the same with Best Buy years later. It was the same thing with the Allen Family whoback in those days ran the local Arbys/KFC franchise as well the local Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn they did the same towards other chains. Actually no sooner when Mrs. Allen had died from breast cancer it was only a few DAYS afterward that Hilton, Super 8, Marriott and Wynngate all had announced plans in coming to Winchester..which they did end up doing just like Circuit City did THE DAY AFTER the bankruptcy of Cornwells. And I am not even going to begin with the guy who runs the local McDonalds..Nick Nerangus and Jim Stutzman from Jim Stutzman Chevrolet however by mid the 90’s “the boys in the bad”.had .pulled a Beatles 1970..they broke up.

    Lot of drama here over the years in regards to Winchester retail, almost like a soap opera which makes for good reading. Unfortunately even in this day of the ne with google and the liket, really the only way to read all about any of this is to pay for access of newspaperarchive.org ( they have back issues of the Winchester Star ) or visit the archives of the local Handley Library still ifor those of us who lived in the “Old” Winchester..it’s interesting

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  8. I was just there this weekend. I really loved this mall. Open floor plan, minimal kiosks, huge sky lights, and a good selection of stores. Sad to see Sears leave, and how Wal-Mart is sealed off from the rest of the mall. I hope the college can bring in more patrons, and I cant see why this mall would fail in the future.

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  9. Very interesting to read about this mall. I think it’s a nice reuse to see a local college use much of the interior space here, why don’t more malls that are struggling to stay afloat consider doing this? IMHO, it’s a no-brainer to do so, especially since it’ll immediately add more foot traffic that might normally not walk within that mall.

    Of course, the fact Wal-Mart shuttered their interior mall entrance(though to WM, I could see them caring so little, since everything they do is always about improving their bottom line) also has had a definite impact on this mall, without a doubt. I wonder if this is one of those malls where Wal-Mart(by some chance) owns the space their store is in(and thus, can theoretically can do whatever they want), or if they lease it from the mall’s owner?

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    Allan Reply:

    @Allan, Forgot to say I really love the logo for the Hot Stepper store. Plus I agree it’s a great bonus that this mall has a rare vintage Subway neon sign!

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  10. Why is there a tombstone there?

    I was reminded that if you wanted to tour D.C. but didn’t want to deal with the traffic, you could ride the train in from Martinsburg.

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  11. I was at Martinsburg Mall recently. of course Sears is long gone but the kicker I noticed at least when I was there were all these ads for local WLTF Lite 97.5 and “Greatest Hits” 95.9 WICL’s Marc Richards.

    OK so according to the ads I had seen Marc is gay (I have no problem with that part at all ) but the ads that I saw like “..The tri-state’s hottest bear. on the radio…Marc Richards” and the one ad near The Bon-Ton..that I saw “One hot sexy cub….Marc Rchards on Lite 97.5″…Maybe this was strictly a weekend thing or perhaps maybe a personal message between WLTF and Marc..dunno but after seeing those ads well Martinsburg Mall might as well hang up the gay bear flag. I had more than my share of an education about gay bears just by visiting that one day at the Martinsburg Mall.

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