Wednesday morning was the perfect time to hang out at the Crystal River Mall.
The mall sold and closed 10 months ago in anticipation of being torn down and replaced with a home-and-commercial development.
I drive by it frequently. Recently, I noticed fire trucks and an ambulance in the parking lot and thought they were gearing up for the demolition.
Turns out I was wrong, but asking the question got me an invite from former mall manager Millie Bresnahan.
Millie now works for Spencer Bartram, the Miami developer who bought the property and is planning a multi-year rollout of apartments, townhomes and retail. The old Office Max serves as Millie’s home base.
She showed me renderings of the new development. What we’ve always known as the food court will be a small lake with a walking path.
That was nice but what I really wanted was to get inside. Something about getting behind the locked fence and seeing the old mall one last time before the wrecking crews show up really fired my curiosity.
Most of the furnishings are, indeed, gone. Turns out people will buy almost anything. Ceiling tiles. Brick pavers. (No takers yet for the “Treats Food Court” signs.) Most things have been picked over. In one of the former stores, someone left a full six-pack of Corona on the front counter.
Millie showed me how workers plan to create separation between Rural King from the mall so that demolition won’t damage the store.
(By the way, how about Rural King for sticking to this site? Who saw that happening? Apparently, it declined offers from the new owners and now they’re going to build a community around the store. This is like a Crystal River Mall keepsake with free popcorn.)
Walking through the mall I could sense the echoes of past crowds in the stores, food court, and community events. I also heard real sounds — pounding, a chainsaw, and voices down the hall.
Millie said the owners offered the mall as a training ground for firefighters and the sheriff’s office K-9 units. They could wale on it all they wanted; I watched as Crystal River and Citrus County Fire Rescue personnel were working on cutting through a steel door that had once been the Regal Cinemas emergency exit.
One firefighter told me he was working for Dixie Hollins when the mall opened in 1990 and helped plant many of the trees on the grounds.
That’s the way it is. Everyone has a memory about the mall and they’re resigned to the changes taking place.
Speaking of that, here’s the lowdown on the demolition:
While I was hoping for explosives, alas, that is not to be. The demo officially starts July 10, but we won’t be noticing it for a week or two while it all takes place inside.
Millie is planning a demolition groundbreaking sometime that month. Instead of a golden shovel, Crystal River Mayor Joe Meek may swing the first ceremonial wrecking ball. I'm pretty sure Snapchat/Tik Tok/YouTube/Facebook Live were created for such a purpose.
Fortunately, it’ll be free to watch in person. I’m sure the Chronicle will have all the details about the day our beloved mall comes down.
I’m one of those people who likes to walk through old abandoned stuff. I could have spent hours Wednesday strolling the old mall, but both Millie and I have real work and this wasn’t it.
In a town with a lot going for it, losing the mall actually makes sense. The Crystal River of the late 1990s and early 2000s is disappearing. In its place is a dynamic, forward-thinking community and city government that sees how the new development fits.
The Crystal River Mall no longer anchors this city. Places like Three Sisters Springs and Kings Bay Park now do. City Hall is convinced that the mall, while a sweet memory, is birthing a new chapter that will also pay untold dividends in the community.
I could hear those memories Wednesday. That or a chainsaw.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.