With a population of just over 100,000 residents, Green Bay is Wisconsin’s third largest city and the largest of the string of cities collectively called the Fox Cities in the northeastern part of the state. Interestingly, Green Bay is one of the oldest continuously settled places in the United States, having been established as a French trading post in 1634. Today, however, Green Bay is known primarily for its homegrown football team and economy of paper mills and other manufacturing industries. However, the economy is far from robust, and the city is one of a few in Wisconsin losing population in recent years due to manufacturing cutbacks and negative job growth as many of the city’s historic industries invest elsewhere in cheaper labor and materials. However, the Green Bay metropolitan area has grown by about 6 percent since 2000.
Green Bay’s retail scene has evolved quite a bit since its early days as a trading post nearly 400 years ago. Unlike southern Wisconsin, Green Bay and the Fox Cities got on the super-regional mall-building train relatively late. One of the first large-scale regional developments was planned to simultaneously reinvigorate downtown Green Bay from its loss of retailers to suburban strips in the 1970s, and also to give the area a super-regional multi-anchor mall. Port Plaza Mall opened ceremoniously in 1977 featuring anchor stores H.C. Prange, which predated the mall by 50 years, and JCPenney, as well as about 100 smaller stores under one roof in the middle of downtown Green Bay. Four years later in 1981 Boston Store opened as well as a small food court.
The 1980s were mostly kind to Port Plaza Mall, as it retained immense popularity despite other competition being constructed nearby. Most notably were the large malls Bay Park Square in Ashwaubenon, a suburb of Green Bay, and Fox River Mall, located in Appleton about 30 minutes away. Both Bay Park Square and Fox River Mall opened as large-scale regional developments and were an immediate threat to Port Plaza’s customer base, opening in 1980 and 1984, respectively. Fox River Mall, being both the most centrally located center for all of northeastern Wisconsin as well as being located in one of the most economically prosperous areas, has enjoyed the most success to date. It has attracted a sea of boxes and category killers to surround it, and is a retail destination for all of northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan. As an immediate response to this competition, Port Plaza Mall embarked upon a large scale renovation in 1988.
As the 1990s began, Port Plaza still held its own and remained a destinational offering anchoring downtown Green Bay. In 1992, anchor store Prange’s became Younkers as the former chain was purchased by the latter, but didn’t really affect much. More numerous changes were afoot by the end of the decade, as problems emerged at Port Plaza Mall. It seemed as though shoppers were no longer willing to go downtown and deal with parking, and much preferred shopping at Bay Park Square, which was renovated about this time, or to travel to Appleton for all the offerings there.
In 2000, the Boston Store closed and so did numerous other national chain retailers, signaling a red flag for the mall’s prosperity and the beginning of a downward spiral. In 2001 and 2002, the mall was sold and a few attempts were made to return it to glory. First, the mall was renamed to Washington Commons, to reflect the new owners’ plans to integrate ‘other’ uses into the mall, like offices. McDonald’s and Osco also jumped ship about this time, and the food court was moved to near center court while the old food court was demolished so Washington Street could be reconnected through the mall as it was before the mall opened. In 2004, another blow came to the mall as Younkers closed, relocating to a vacant spot at Bay Park Square. In 2005, the Green Bay Childrens Museum left the mall, and all the while more and more stores left like Bath and Body Works. 2005 also saw the last anchor tenant, JCPenney, leave the mall in October, leaving the mall with only a handful of stores.
In February 2006, following numerous failed attempts to repurpose at least some of the mall into office space or anything useful, owners decided to kick the remaining tenants out and close the mall permanently. They sort of had to do this, because the mall was being foreclosed upon by the bank it was financed with, and the electricity would be shut off after February and it’s mighty cold in Wisconsin about this time. Anyway, the mall closed, but not before yours truly paid it a visit on the last day it was open. These pictures were taken February 26, 2006.
In Summer 2007, the Pranges/Younkers building was demolished to make way for new developments at the mall, which could include a small lifestyle/retail portion and trendy condos or something; you know the drill by now. Take a look at the pictures and feel free to leave us your own comments and experiences at Port Plaza Mall/Washington Commons in Green Bay.