When I was a freshman in college I used to talk to people about their hometowns and through them I learned some interesting things. One of them was the existence of an enclosed shopping mall in downtown Oshkosh, Wisconsin (population 63,000). I had always wondered why a city of Oshkosh’s size never seemed to have a mall. I always assumed that competition in Appleton and Fond du Lac killed a potential mall before it became a possibility. I was wrong. Park Plaza Mall opened in the 1970s and was the beginning of a trend of downtown renewal projects across the country, as suburbs began to sprawl up all over with their Big Box stores, huge enclosed malls, and rampant retail strips.
People realized even then this was sapping downtowns at the expense of suburban development, and in some cases the downtowns were failing completely. Rather than being faced with unchecked decay and blight, developers sought to resurge the languishing downtowns with destination venues, places that were more unique and offered a reason for people to escape the suburbs and come back downtown. They realized the traditional downtown with rows of stores and services along a series of main streets was no longer a draw because people were doing this type of shopping in the suburbs where they lived, so they thought long and hard. Someone came up with the idea of taking what was such a big hit in the suburbs and putting it downtown: enclosed shopping malls. Thus began the trend of enclosed, traditional malls being erected in downtowns across the country. Some of them have worked, but most have not. The logistics of getting downtown, parking, and most notably competition have taken a toll on these centers and made many fail, even after initial success. Downtown malls in places like Green Bay, Milwaukee, Appleton, Columbus, OH, and Worcester, MA have all failed or languished severely, citing these concerns.
Park Plaza Mall enjoyed a period of success in the 1970s and into the 1980s, and was anchored by Sears, JCPenney, and H.C. Prange Co., a Sheboygan-based department store chain that went bankrupt and was purchased by the Younkers chain in 1992. The center was over 800,000 square feet in size, including anchors and office space, and included an U-shaped hallway with an impressive multi-level atrium with hanging modern art scupltures, common areas, and large amounts of office space above the mall. The mall had many of the national chain stores and was a regional draw, bringing in shoppers from Appleton and Neenah-Menasha in the north to Fond du Lac and the surrounding areas to the south. Appleton already had a downtown mall of its own and two very small, aged enclosed centers on the north and south sides of town, respectively, but they were not as large or as regional a draw as Park Plaza.
In 1984, Park Plaza Mall experienced its worst blow as the gigantic Fox River Mall opened in Grand Chute (Appleton) along U.S. 41. Just 15 minutes north of Oshkosh, Fox River Mall immediately became a shopping destination for the entirety of the Fox River Valley region and all of northeast Wisconsin. Even today, people regularly make weekend shopping trips from several hours away in the Upper Peninsula region of Michigan to Appleton. Also, U.S. 41 in the entire Fox Valley from Fond du Lac up to Green Bay became the central location for retailers along the corridor, sucking stores out of downtowns in all cities along it. Fond du Lac’s Forest Mall was a quick 15-20 minute drive down U.S. 41 from Oshkosh, and also sapped shoppers from Park Plaza. Prime Outlets opened a massive outlet mall on the southwest side of Oshkosh adjacent to U.S. 41, and strip malls and big box stores began sprouting up along U.S. 41 and Koeller Street in Oshkosh. People once again began to ignore downtown Oshkosh, despite there being a mall there, for competition in Appleton, Fond du Lac, and along Oshkosh’s new main street, U.S. 41.
In the early 1990s the bottom fell out at Park Plaza and the stores began to leave in droves. Sears left in 1993, and returned in 2006 as Sears Grand along the U.S. 41 corridor. Prange’s became Younkers with the buyout of the chain in 1992, but also left soon after. In perhaps the most telling move of local retailing trends in the 1990s, JCPenney closed their Park Plaza store for a standalone location along U.S. 41 near the outlet mall. It remains there today. During the mid-1990s developers realized the mall was transitioning away from a retail destination and allowed it by encouraging specialty stores and services to move into the mall such as a local book store and a kids’ art studio. More offices moved into the mall and the Park Plaza Hotel continued to be successful operations.
In July 2000 I visted what was left of the mall on an acquaintance’s tip, and I was impressed. Even though none of the anchor stores were left and most of the stores were either vacant or converted to office space, it was very apparent it was once a large mall. Several of the corridors were left mostly untouched as public walkways and retained many labelscars which you can see in the pictures below. In 2001 the mall was renamed City Center as yet another attempt to revitalize the former mall and Oshkosh’s downtown was underway, though there is no current focus on the center’s retail viability. More office-type businesses have been wooed to the center since, and there have been talks of renovating and removing most of the mall’s former in-line space for more offices or other non-retail use. Some of this may have already happened. Let us know more about Park Plaza Mall! Leave your personal anecdotes, historical facts, or other comments here.