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BARBOURSVILLE — Len Eplin says he grew up going to the Huntington Mall.

“I was 13 years old when the mall opened,” he said. “It immediately became the place to go and I think that still holds true today, 40 years later.”

Eplin manages The Big Loafer, which is now owned by his mother, Sydney Mae. It is one of the mall’s oldest tenants.

“My father and a friend opened up the Big Loafer in November 1981 and we have been here ever since,” he said. “I grew up in this mall and it has been a wonderful experience. Lots of our customers have grown up going to this mall too and now I see their children and grandchildren coming in regularly.”

One of those customers, 47-year-old Jason Adkins of Huntington, says when he thinks of the Huntington Mall the first business he thinks of is The Big Loafer.

“After a day of shopping with the family, The Big Loafer is the place we like to eat,” he said. “I came here as a kid and now I get to bring my kids. Lots of things have changed over 40 years, but The Big Loafer is still here at the mall and that makes me happy.”

Since opening in 1981, the Huntington Mall has established itself as the largest shopping destination in the Tri-State and offers 118 dining, entertainment and retail destinations.

“We have the same amount of businesses operating on the mall property today as we did 40 years ago,” said Joe Bell, director of corporate communications for the mall, which is owned and managed in association with the Cafaro family of companies, based in Niles, Ohio.

Another longtime tenant at the mall is Adam’s Hallmark.

“We opened in 1983, just two years after the mall opened,” said owner Paul Adams. “We have seven stores around the state, but the location at the Huntington Mall is our standard bearer. We are proud to be part of this 40-year milestone anniversary.”

Bell says the Huntington Mall’s success throughout the past 40 years is because of its location and its ability to continue to adapt and evolve in an ever-changing market.

“Our company founder, William M. Cafaro, had an incredibly keen eye for choosing the right locations for his projects. Huntington Mall benefits by its location between Huntington and the state capital, right on Interstate 64,” he said. “Another reason is the close relationships our real estate leasing executives nurture with potential tenants, both local and national. Perhaps the most important ingredient is our determination to evolve with the times. We are always working to keep the offerings at Huntington Mall relevant to the community.”

A ‘refresh’ at 40

Currently, the mall complex encompasses approximately 1.5 million square feet of retail space. It is the largest shopping mall in West Virginia.

Bell says work is now underway on a variety of improvements to the Huntington Mall complex. A project in excess of $1 million will include new directional signage, carpeting, interior landscaping, roofing, a new pylon sign with state-of-the-art video display, upgrades to interior and exterior lighting and repaving of parking areas and driving lanes, according to Bell.

“In 2011, the mall underwent a multi-million dollar renovation that introduced dramatic changes,” he said. “This current project will augment that renovation, refreshing the look and feel of the property for merchants, customers and other visitors to the property.”

Bell said these physical changes are just part of the 40th anniversary celebration.

“In honor of the occasion, mall guests will be able to compete in a ‘Throwback to the ’80’s Trivia Contest,’” he explained. “Each Thursday in February, Huntington Mall will give away $40 in mall gift cards to winners of the contest. The winners’ names will be entered into a grand prize drawing on Feb. 28. One lucky winner will come away with $250 in mall gift cards.”

“We’re taking this whole month to just celebrate the fact that we’ve turned 40,” said Margi MacDuff, the mall’s marketing director.

As part of the anniversary celebration, guests are also invited to stop and view a historical display about the mall, located in the JCPenney Concourse, where children may pick up free activities packets, MacDuff said.

History

In the mid-1970s, Tri-State shoppers looking for the large mall shopping experience had to travel to Lexington, Kentucky, Columbus, Ohio and elsewhere.

Some local developers responded by stepping forward with plans for a Huntington area mall.

Before the Huntington Mall was built 40 years ago, the only other businesses there were two bars and an Exxon gas station.

Crown American Corp. wanted to build a mall at the 29th Street interchange; Interstate Properties had its eye on land near the 16th Street interchange (now Hal Greer Boulevard); and a Youngstown, Ohio, construction company had plans for a $25 million mall at the Ona interchange.

In 1977, the city of Huntington signed an agreement with Interstate, allowing for annexation of the site after the first store opened, delaying payment of business and occupation taxes until that time.

But several downtown businessmen filed a suit in March 1977, challenging the agreement. They argued that the contract violated the state uniform tax law and the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The argument charged that downtown retailers paid substantial taxes as part of urban renewal, while City Council delayed annexation for the mall to allow those retailers a chance to circumvent taxation.

Cabell County Circuit Judge Robert C. Conaty ruled in August that the agreement was valid, but those five months of turmoil caused hesitation among the large anchor stores. The Ona interchange became the prime target and it was announced as the location after commitments from anchor stores.

When the mall initially opened, JCPenney, Lazarus, Stone & Thomas and Sears were the anchor stores. Today, Macy’s, JCPenney, Dick’s Sporting Goods/Field & Stream, BAM! (Books A Million), Kohl’s, Lowes, Old Navy, Michaels, Best Buy and T.J. Maxx/HomeGoods are considered anchor stores.

The Huntington Mall opened on Feb. 3, 1981, and had its grand-opening celebration a few weeks later on Feb. 18.

Memorable moments

Stone & Thomas was converted to Elder-Beerman in 1998 when the chain was acquired. A year later, Borders Books & Music opened its first West Virginia store at the mall. Old Navy, Steve & Barry’s and local chain Dawahares were later added to the mall as well. After Phar-Mor closed in 2002, it became the second Dick’s Sporting Goods in the state.

In mid-2008, it was announced that Cinemark would open a new movie theater at the mall, replacing the vacated six-screen complex. This new theater opened in early 2009. That same year, the grand opening of the Cabell Huntington Healthy Kids Play Place (the soft-play area for children) created quite a buzz.

A year later, actor Peter Facinelli from the “Twilight” movies came to the mall for a meet & greet event. The line of fans looking for his autograph stretched up and down the concourse and out the entrance doors.

In 2011, the mall underwent a multi-million dollar renovation, culminating in a lavish grand reopening gala on Dec. 4.

Also in 2011 Borders Books closed, but Books-A-Million later replaced it. Parent company The Bon-Ton closed the Elder-Beerman in the mall on Jan. 31, 2016, and the space was split among Forever 21, TJ Maxx and HomeGoods.

On Aug. 6, 2019, Sears announced it would be closing its location at the mall in late October, while the auto center closed in late August. However, the Cabell County Board of Education is now in the process of moving its Career and Technology Center to the Huntington Mall complex, thanks to an $87 million bond issue approved by local voters.

“This is a transformational project for the community,” Bell said. “It will more than triple the size of the current Career and Technology Center and provide greater access and opportunity for hundreds of local students.”

Occupancy rate

Bell said any mall, never mind the largest in West Virginia, comes with a steady carousel of retailers. Since the mall opened in 1981, businesses have come and gone, but during all that time the mall has kept an occupancy rate above 90%.

“We don’t get overly excited when stores come and go,” Bell said. “It comes in cycles. This is the way of the retail shopping industry.”

Within the past few years, some popular stores have left, including the Disney Store, Pandora and Cosimos Pizza.

“We understand that when a familiar name closes at the mall, it can be upsetting for many folks,” Bell explained. “Sometimes we are surprised by some of the stores’ decisions to close because it doesn’t matter if the store was popular locally or doing well financially. In the case of the Disney Store, it appears that the closing of this store is part of a strategy Disney has been pursuing for the past few years, systematically closing most, if not all, of its retail stores.”

However, in 2020 there were no store closings at the mall. There were seven new additions — Wash, Versona, Green Revolution, Cindy’s Country Gifts, Fun City Arcade, Iron Headz Sports Nutrition and Shipwreck Collection — despite the challenges posed by a global pandemic, Bell said.

He said the mall is currently in negotiations with several businesses to move into the available space at the mall.

“We are always marketing the mall and trying to find the best fits to serve the community’s needs,” Bell said.

Bell says there is no denying that many retailers are going through turbulent times.

“Some retailers have weathered this turbulent time better than others by continuing to update their business models to properly manage both their physical and online locations,” Bell said. “Meanwhile, lots of big national chains over-leveraged with too much debt and fell to the forces of the current economy in the retail shopping industry.”

The retail industry has undergone a significant transformation over the past decade, and it continues to evolve quickly, he said.

“The market is quickly evolving, and retailers must adapt to new shifts in demographics, attitudes and consumer preferences,” Bell said. “Stores that understand and overcome these retail shopping trends will thrive,” Bell said. “Retailers that don’t will go the way of familiar names in the past, like Montgomery Ward, RadioShack and others.”

Economic impact

Since the mall’s opening, several retailers have built around the mall. So have hotels and motels and several restaurants, as well as a Walmart Supercenter, the first Best Buy in West Virginia and the first Sheetz gas station/convenience store in southern West Virginia. Other retail businesses and malls, such as Tanyard Station, have been built and are adding new businesses each year.

“I can’t say that we’ve ever undertaken any kind of definitive analysis of the total economic impact the mall has had on the region, but it has to be enormous,” Bell said. “Think about all the tax generated by businesses at the mall, the wages paid to thousands of workers over the years and the ripple effect of all those wages as they are spent in the local economy.”

Today, the mall averages in the hundreds of millions of dollars in retail trade and provides a large amount of the annual budget for the Village of Barboursville.

In 2000, then-mayor and current County Commissioner Nancy Cartmill said the mall was averaging about $375 million in retail trade, transforming the village of Barboursville’s budget. The incorporation of the mall grew Barboursville’s budget from $100,000 prior to the mall being opened to around $4.8 million for fiscal year 2009. She said that meant no one who lives in Barboursville pays municipal fees. Tax revenue also has helped re-pave streets and sidewalks, replace sewers and build Barboursville Park, she said.

Current Barboursville Mayor Chris Tatum said this year Barboursville’s budget has now grown to approximately $7 million annually and the bulk of it comes from business and occupation tax, most of which is directly related to the mall and businesses around it.

“The development of the Huntington Mall spurred so much growth in Barboursville that we have become the premier shopping destination in the region,” Tatum said. “It has allowed for us to do so many other citizen and community services in Barboursville. We continue to have a great relationship with the Cafaro family and truly understand and appreciate the investment they have made, and continue to make, in the community. We realize how much we mean to each other.”

Outlook

Despite the current economic conditions, the mall’s owners say they have a positive outlook on the future.

“We’re extremely proud of being part of the community for so many years,” said William A. Cafaro, co-president of Cafaro. “Our goal is to keep serving the people of West Virginia, Kentucky and southern Ohio for at least 40 more years. That’s why we’re committed to bringing new and popular additions to Huntington Mall and investing in the kinds of changes that make it fresh and inviting.”

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD or email him at fpace@hdmediallc.com.