Saturday, September 30, 2006


(News-Herald, September 28)This weekend the Cranberry Mall celebrates its 25th anniversary.
It’s a big anniversary, marking the beginning of one of the major local shifts of the past several decades.
On the one hand, twenty-five years is not that many. You don’t have to be much of an old-timer to remember when Cranberry was a whole lot of rustic rusticity. On the other hand, local teenagers have no memory of a time when there wasn’t a mall.
Residents of a certain age (i.e. mine) will recall cruising up 257 craning necks to catch a glimpse of anything dirty that might be showing at the drive-in. Fanny Hill is much naughtier when she’s thirty feet tall.
And you don’t have to be much of an old-timer to remember when the mall was just an old school house with a Radio Shack and an Artsy Crafty store with a driving range out back.
Some folks thought that a mall, out in Cranberry, was possibly the silliest idea ever. Then the mall was actually built, and suddenly it didn’t seem so dumb; suddenly people were a lot more worried about the emptying of downtown Oil City and Franklin. It was scary for a while, watching stores like Sears and JCPenney disappear from the city landscapes.
But for once, and pretty much by accident, development had come in a way that was smart and healthy for the long run. It was hard to see at the time. Back then the two cities were still pretty well locked into the idea that each was its own little economic world, and from that perspective, the arrival of the mall looked like disaster.
I suppose that anxious city fathers could have made a ginormous push to keep the big stores. They could have leveled city blocks, made deals to offer prime development deals to retailers. Rows of fine old buildings would have disappeared and with them, the character and heart of our two distinctive small towns.
The cities could have headed down the same disastrous planning road that Franklin started down in the seventies. Instead, what happened is what makes the most sense from a regional viewpoint. We kept one of our regional assets—the distinctive old faces of small city downtowns—and we traded in the asset we could most afford to lose—a couple hundred acres of old farmland.
What we get is, essentially, downtown Venangoland, situated in a place that won’t cramp growth either by lack of space or by using an area where people want to live and sleep.
I know it’s not all sunshine and skittles. Oil City and Franklin are both still grappling with the challenge of figuring out what exactly to do with all that picturesque downtown real estate. Some answers have been pretty good (Summer House Coffee in Franklin, for example) and some, not so much (how many finance-related storefronts do we really need).
Now, today, it’s easy to look at Downtown Venangoland see it as obvious and inevitable. Like Grove City, it’s just far enough from the Big Cities. It sits on the state’s favored Route 322 corridor. And like any good downtown, it’s right in the heart of the area it serves.
But twenty-five years ago, it took a mighty powerful pair of spectacles to see the future in a wide field of farmland. What looks like a simple slam dunk today took guts and vision twenty-five years ago. Anybody can hop on a bandwagon once it’s running; it takes nerve to build a bandwagon when you can barely see any road to drive it on.
Irony in the retail world comes around pretty quickly. Just as the mall forced the old commercial centers to struggle for a new identity, now the mall, as the Old Part of downtown Venangoland, has to fight for consumers that are being swallowed up by that great black hole of retailing and its hangers on (including some stores that once called the mall home—marriage is so fleeting in the retail world).
The mall has become a modern version of the old downtowns it replaced, a melting pot of department stores, special shops, and the occasional bizarre little boutique shop (stop and check out the giant weird Halloween stuff store). It has hung on, the territory around it has prospered, and we can all get plenty of shopping done close to home.
25 years is a long time in mall years. And while I can’t really get all sentimental about a shopping mall, I can still remember when we young folk were excited that we would have a real mall right in our own backyard. Wow, we thought. It’s like the area is really building up. We had no idea.

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