Emergency car repairs recently left me sitting on the side of Newport Avenue straddling the East Providence/Pawtucket, Rhode Island line when it suddenly occurred to me that the once thriving Narragansett Plaza, now mostly vacant, reminded me of so many similarly empty plazas here at home. What has happened to all of these plazas?  Our malls too?

The North Dartmouth Mall opened in 1973 when I was just a kid.  The mall era meant the death knell for many downtowns, like New Bedford's.  The Dartmouth Mall had some difficult years but seems to be holding it's own.  For now.  With Sears, JC Penny and Macy's as anchor tenants, all three of whom have shuttered stores recently,  the future is anyone's guess.

The Galleria Mall In Taunton, once crawling with shoppers, has lost two of it's three anchors in Macy's and JC Penny and Sears' future is rather tenuous right now.  The last new mall to be constructed in the U.S. was in 2012.  Hundreds of once thriving malls now lay abandoned and in ruins from coast to coast.

TIME.com quotes FTI Consulting's Keith Jelinek in a piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying, "Whereas about 20 department store brands were anchoring U.S. malls  15 years ago, today only 8 department stores are left."   Brad Tuttle, in the TIME.com report says middle-class department stores "have been painted as boring, overpriced, middle-of-the -road and inconvenient compared to the other options out there."

So, where is everyone shopping these days?  Everyone agrees that AMAZON has taken a major bite out of the retail apple, but, Tuttle says, "off-price outlets," such as T.J. Maxx are having an impact too.  He says, "cheap fast-fashion apparel" retailers like H&M, soon to be opening at the Dartmouth Mall, are taking a bite out of that apple as well.

Don't be quick to blame Walmart either. Tuttle says, "high-end malls with anchors like Nordstrom and smaller storefronts featuring luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton are actually booming at a time when middle-class shopping centers are struggling."  Once shopper magnets, Tuttle says Macy's, Penny and Sears as anchors are, "a bad thing,"  that are, "keeping a mall stuck in the past, preventing it from being where shoppers want to go."

Experts say many young people and empty nesters, once attracted to the suburbs, have now been drawn back to the cities where urban living and niche shopping experiences are preferred.  Local breweries, eateries and niche shops have become the rage.  Outdoor marketplaces such as The Wrentham Outlets and Wareham Crossing are also much in demand.

Drive along Route 6 in Fairhaven or pass by King's Highway in New Bedford and you'll see once sought after retail space sitting empty.  Even Target is undergoing a make-over to try to entice it's customer base back.  In our region, low cost Market Basket has forced a number of supermarket to close, leaving vacant storefronts behind.

In addition to our changing attitudes towards shopping, retail advocates say state and local government regulations, higher minimum wages and state sales taxes are making it more difficult to compete.

All of this can explain why its not so easy to fill those empty plazas.  It seems a though no one really wants them.

Editor's Note: Barry Richard is the afternoon host on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from Noon-3pm. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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