Manitowoc, Wisconsin is a small port city in east-central Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. With a population of 34,000 and micropolitan area (with Two Rivers and the rest of the county) of just over 50,000, Manitowoc is hardly a large place. Most of its roots are in manufacturing, shipping and agriculture, and thus growth in the region has slowed in recent decades as the economy shifts from that of building things to one of building knowledge. That said, Manitowoc still maintains a retail presence, but it is important to consider that it has always been on a local scale. Being about 30 minutes from both Green Bay and Sheboygan, and less than an hour from Appleton where ample retail offerings exist, Manitowoc has never been the center of super-regional (or even regional) retail activity. Instead, the offerings in Manitowoc and Two Rivers have been just enough to sustain local shoppers, including two enclosed malls right next to each other: Edgelake Plaza, at 210,000 square feet, and Lakeview Centre.
From time to time, we feature guest bloggers here who have their own stories to share. The following entry comes to us from Matt A. (a.k.a. Matt from WI from the comments board on this site) as he tells the story of the newer of two adjacent malls between Manitowoc and Two Rivers, Wisconsin:
My home state of Wisconsin, like many other Upper Midwestern states, was dotted with small community malls of this ilk during the days of the enclosed mall building boom in the late 1960s-1980s. While the cities of Manitowoc and Two Rivers already shared the Mid-Cities Mall, which opened in 1968 and boasted a Wards, Penney’s, and over 20 other shops, most of those shops were the local / regional flavor, save for a large Woolworth, A&P and Osco Drug. Edgewater took up the slack when it opened directly across the street in 1979, bringing with it another 20 stores, most of them featuring a heavy regional / national presence. It was originally anchored on the west end by a Prange’s (now Younkers) and Prange Way flanked the eastern end, with in-line space in between. The newer more modern mall even took away some of Mid-Cities’ stores.I’m not sure as to how ‘successful’ Edgewater Mall was back in its first years of life (’79-’89), but I’d imagine it did well enough when it was 100% occupied, when Wal-Mart wasn’t ‘the place’ people shopped (it was Prange Way or K-mart back then), and the local economy was still in halfway decent shape -but more on that in a moment. At least four reasons account for why this mall died:
1 – A new interstate, I-43, opened in 1981 and finally gave Manitowoc and Two Rivers a major highway link to the major cities of Green Bay and Milwaukee, taking away consumer dollars that otherwise would have been spent locally.
2 – Location. The Mall, while located just off the lakefront on the northeast side of town, is not near the main commercial hub of Manitowoc. The southwest side of Manitowoc is the new retail strip for the area, with big box such as K-mart, ShopKo, and several strip malls that opened starting in the 1970s. While old Highway 42 (Memorial Drive) is / was the main link between Manitowoc (and points south including Milwaukee) and the Door County region, once I-43 was built (shortly after the Edgewater Mall opened), all the thru-traffic going past the mall was sucked away, and with it, the retail heart of the city swung around to the southwest at the intersection of I-43 and U.S. 151. Mid-Cities Mall, renamed Lakeview Centre in the late 1980s, already a dying mall by then, didn’t help either. That building was an eyesore already by 1979 when Edgewater opened, the bottom falling out when Wards, Woolworths and Osco all pulled out and left gaping vacancies that would never be refilled. I believe this had some crossover effect on Edgelake Plaza, especially in the past 10-15 years.
3 – Tenancy. Prange’s switching to Younkers wasn’t such an issue. Hanging onto national tenants was always a problem for small malls of under 300,000 sq ft, or so it seemed. At its peak, Edgewater had names like Id Boutique, Kinney Shoes, Kindy Optical, Regis, Deb, Brooks Fashions, an arcade, several food counters, and various other major stores, at least 20 in all. Bankruptcies and the big blow came in 1996 when Prange Way went bankrupt and shuttered their Edgewater location along with the rest of the 22-store chain of regional discount stores.
4 – Local Economy: During the World War era, Manitowoc flourished due to its shipbuilding industry. There was also the Mirro Company, and several other major manufacturers within the city providing an economic base. When all of this was outsourced starting in the late 1970s and continuing still to this day..well, you can guess what happens over time. No money to spend = retailers struggle and eventually go out of business. Such was the case here.
I’ve attatched two sets of imagery. The outdoor ones I snapped in 2004. The interior shots I took last year. You can really tell this is a 1970s mall. The outside was given a paintjob in 2002, but you can still tell when it was built by the plain boxy look of the building, and the typical vertical-slotted cinderblock details. Inside, the dark terra-cotta flooring, the low tiled ceilings, the fluorescent light fixtures instead of mecury-vapor bulbs (energy crisis in the late 1970s prompted the use of fluorescent lighting), lots of planters and wood-tone benches, and those treated-wood-style storefronts that chains like Brooks, Id, and Regis used back in 1979…very dated and a dead giveaway as to the era this mall opened. The mall only consists of one wide concourse stretching between Younkers and the vacant Prange Way, and a short hallway going to the mall’s lone rear entrance. Two entryways take up the front.
When I visited last year to take the interior pics, all that was left was a tanning studio, a NASCAR paraphernalia store, a nail salon, an eyecare/opticians office, and a Sears Authorized Dealer store that only sells Sears’ hardlines (Craftsman and Kenmore stuff).
I’m not sure how much longer this mall will last, considering there’s not much left. However it seems to still be in operational mode, because when I was there, the floors were getting buffed as you can see in the pics (they’re unusually shiny and look new), and several old storefronts were being repainted, leading me to believe maybe the new owners / management have intentions to lease space. In the end, it’s a dying, yet decently maintained little mall. Trust me, I have seen worse in the upkeep department when it comes to these smaller malls.
With most malls like this in Wisconsin having been either reconfigured into strip malls, or torn down outright, it was a nice find that Edgelake Plaza has been open long enough for me to capture an example of
what we were seeing during the mall boom in the 1970s and is today disappearing in favor of big boxes and
super-mega malls. These were not ‘regional’ malls in the sense of the term, they were community malls
(though they did serve the rural areas within the county as well), and it is quite a shame to see many of them going the way of 8-track tapes and VHS movies. They hold a certain aura and charm that the huge behemoth malls just can’t capture. It sure would be nice to see Edgelake Plaza be fully occupied again someday and thriving once again.
Thanks, Matt. We appreciate the submission. If you have any other comments, feel free to add to the discussion. The pictures featured with this article were taken by me in 2001 and by Matt A. in 2004 and 2006.
Oh, and by the way…Matt submitted an article on Wikipedia about Edgelake Plaza, and their content selectors flagged it for deletion today for not being notable enough. We here at labelscar feel it’s rather ridiculous (not to mention incredibly subjective) to try to decide which malls have notability and which do not, especially considering no precedent has been set for determining shopping center notability. Is a shopping center notable because it has a certain number of stores, or attracts an affluent customer base? What about its sheer size? Maybe it’s just notable for the people who live in the area and shop there regularly.
Whoever thinks that shopping centers, even this one, aren’t notable should thoughtfully reconsider. While Wikipedia is not the yellow pages, shopping malls are an important piece of our collective history and culture. Whether you like them or dislike them notwithstanding, they have proven themselves functionally and have a continued following. In addition, they function more than just systems of utilitarian commerce. In fact, many people do find them interesting as reflections of their own style of architecture, their varied retail presence, relative locations in our cities, and even their varying physical conditions. I would argue that in general, shopping mall articles belong in a reference encyclopedia if, for nothing else, to provide an index of these important historical agents of our collective history, our pieces of Americana. We must continue to be very careful in filtering content so that we don’t become an irrelevant collective source of information.
We don’t usually use the blog to further a specific agenda such as this, but we feel marginalized by those who essentially don’t understand the appreciation and legitimacy of retail places, and who view them as thin and not unique. To us, nearly all retail places are unique in some interesting way, and the claim of a reference encyclopedia asserting it does not wish to index every shopping center is as absurd as saying “We also no longer wish to list every city; some are just not that notable.” So, if you could go to the page and voice your concerns, that would be great. End rant for now…