Let’s put a pause on this week’s election talk for a moment.
We can’t let the Crystal River Mall close without saying goodbye to Millie.
It was Millie Bresnahan who kept the place relevant in Citrus County long after it should have lost its relevance.
Millie wasn’t just the mall manager. To tenants and customers, she was den mother, best friend, worst enemy and, above all, fierce protector of all things Crystal River Mall.
Even working for a series of mall owners who did not make basic upkeep, in some cases, a priority, Millie still managed to encourage tenants and the community that the Crystal River Mall isn’t going away.
Well, now it is. It’s been purchased and will close on Saturday to make way for a mix of retail, apartments and townhouses. The mall itself (minus Rural King) will eventually be demolished.
So I couldn’t let the mall close without saying bye to Millie.
I found her the other day walking purposely through the food court, two-way radio in hand, tracking down details. The place was eerily empty. While the mall is still open, just about everyone is gone. A few tenants, she says, plan to stay until closing.
We wander to the mall office across from Paint the Town Citrus and begin to reminisce.
She became mall manager 11 years ago, which, unfortunately, was the start of the end of the mall. The prior owner had just gone into foreclosure and the court appointed a receiver. The mall was for sale — cheap.
Soon the anchors started to leave. First Sears, then JCPenney, then Belk. Finally, Kmart was gone and Millie was left with a big problem.
She told me a funny behind the scenes story. Millie hears it like we all do: “Why doesn’t the mall have (fill in the blank with favorite specialty store)?”
Well, one of those was Hobby Lobby. Millie had Hobby Lobby lined up to fill one of the three vacant anchor homes, but the mall owner at the time wouldn’t pull the trigger on spending the money — it WAS a big number — to make the spot ready to Hobby Lobby’s liking. So the space remained empty.
We took a walk down to the Regal Theaters. That’s another odd story about the theater’s closing without notice during the pandemic, a dispute over rent, and then theater employees returning to basically shut it down permanently.
The Regal lobby was jammed with tables and seats removed from the food court. The theater left a bunch of snack bar equipment — a humongous popcorn popper that I was ready to drive right off the lot — and movie posters on the walls.
I remember when this place opened. It featured “stadium seating.” I took my daughter there to see The Rugrats Movie when she was very little. It was her first visit to the theater and she was extremely impressed with the entire adventure.
See? That’s the Crystal River Mall. Community happened here.
Millie tells me she’s heard from folks who were married at the mall. Others have specific childhood or teenage memories. As we were on our stroll, the daily walkers were hustling through the mall (warning: Don’t get in their way).
We came across a woman who was with a group of six or seven developmentally challenged residents of Spring Hill who knew nothing about the mall’s closing. They were just looking for an air-conditioned place to enjoy lunch in the food court and do some shopping.
It was sad to see Millie deliver the news.
I know you’re wondering, so I’ll say that Millie’s going to be just fine. She’s not going anywhere.
But, boy, do we owe her a debt of gratitude. This mall fell on hard times because of poor ownership, not poor management. It survived well beyond its time because Millie kept it going.
Millie gave me a keepsake: A rectangle piece of the JCPenney floor, with it stamped “Crystal River Mall — 1990-2022.”
Thirty-two years. That’s a pretty good run for our little mall. Thank you, Millie Bresnahan, for the memories.