The Crystal River Mall is a symbol of irony.
It was built 30-plus years ago on the city’s north end at a time when that entire area was expected to explode with growth.
The first 15 years, the mall was golden. Four popular anchor stores, a food court brimming with activity. Numerous community events; I recall attending Taste of Citrus at the mall one year.
And then, a business decision that occurred 3,000 miles away and had nothing to do with Crystal River set the stage for mall failure.
That decision led to numerous others, each bringing the mall further down into obscurity. New owners promised great things but didn’t deliver.
And now we’re at the end. The mall is all but sold to a Miami developer whose plans are to tear it down and build retail, apartments and townhouses. The city is giddy about the prospect of active development on the site. (The sale doesn't affect Rural King.)
The irony is this: Crystal River Mall was built in that location for a purpose — growth. The growth didn’t happen, the mall fell on hard times, and now it’s being sold to a company that envisions the same growth potential mall developers saw 35 years ago.
Let’s spend this beautiful Friday talking about it.
I love the mall. I mean, who doesn’t? It’s little, and has that crazy Teflon tent roof. It’s a landmark. We joke about it the same way we joke about our little gulf beach. Yeah, it’s a tiny mall. So what?
It’s easy today to be critical of the mall’s location, as if it were built in Lecanto it would have fared better.
Well, let’s go back to 1990.
Growth, or the potential of growth, boomed in Citrus County. At the same time out in California, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. — then the most successful shopping mall developer in the country — had an idea for a prototype community mall to compete with Walmart stores that were popping up all over small town America.
DeBartolo, in its corporate profile at the time, said:
“Although these generally small town areas offered fewer consumers, developers hoped that their newer, more comprehensive shopping centers would provide the most attractive retail opportunity in the area. DeBartolo’s Crystal River Mall…was an example of the format.”
And more than just a mall. Plans included outparcels and a 550-home development on the property where the new RV park is now going in across Turkey Oak.
Around the same time, the Tamposi family created Betz Farm and plans for 1,500 homes on Turkey Oak a few miles from the mall.
Guess what? The economy took a dive, the Tamposis nixed Betz Farm, and DeBartolo sold the mall in 2006 to Simon Group. Trouble started not long after. First the mall office closed. Then the air conditioning, always a challenge with that food court roof, went on the fritz.
Anchor stores closed up or left. Simon lost the mall to foreclosure. Malls everywhere started experiencing similar problems, and that made the Crystal River Mall issue even more challenging.
New owners bought the mall for 20 cents on the dollar and invested little in its upkeep. The last few years has seen 50% store occupancy, if that. I give the mall owners credit — they never closed the place down. Crippled for sure, but never closed.
And now it’s time for a new chapter. I, for one, am grateful to have had the Crystal River Mall in our community the past 30 years. It’s a piece of Citrus County that provided shopping, entertainment, movies, snacks and a general pleasant experience for most people who walked through the doors.
I’m confident the new owner, a Miami developer, will do great things in and for Crystal River on the mall property.
The mall closes for good at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20. In the meantime, you can find me in the food court.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.