Tonight I’m going to spend some time and wax nostalgic about a retail establishment in the area in which I grew up that for all intents and purposes is dead.
Let’s all hold a moment of silence for the Three Rivers Mall in Kelso, Wash. The death knell has been sounded for what was once a bustling retail center after another anchor store shut its doors yesterday.
Respect to The Daily News, my hometown newspaper, who were the first to report back in October that Sears would close. They got word of the closure and put out the report — when I first read it, I wasn’t necessarily stunned but rather saddened that a place I remember as being so vibrant is essentially just another spot on the map.
Sunday was the last day for the Sears store in the Three Rivers Mall, one of over 170 stores the chain shut down as it tried to return to profitability. It’s the second anchor store in the mall to shut down, after Emporium had done so back in 2003.
The space formerly occupied by Emporium has never since found a long-term tenant. I believe a church once utilized the area there, and maybe a few other temporary stores had utilized its front area, but that’s about it. For a mall not to replace an anchor store in ten years is pretty telling.
Where the Three Rivers Mall Stands Today
Three Rivers Mall opened on land that was formerly a golf course adjacent to Interstate 5 in Kelso in 1987 with The Bon Marche, JC Penney’s, Emporium and Sears as the original anchor tenants. Other national chains and stores filled in as time went on, and the mall was booming in the 1990s.
Around that same time, stores scattered throughout included Musicland (later Sam Goody), Waldenbooks, Treasure House Christian bookstore, Mattresses & More, Electronics Boutique, GNC and others. The food court included a Sbarro and Dairy Queen, then a cookie place around the corner and a Tilt arcade in a nook by the mall entrance.
Oh yeah, can’t forget KayBee Toys and RadioShack either.
The mall was packed on weekends and during holidays. I remember many trips to the mall as a very young kid, and my parents eagerly encouraging me to hold their hand as to not get separated from them.
Today, a kid couldn’t get separated from their parents or lost there if they tried. Most, if not all, of the retailers I mentioned above are gone. JCPenney’s and Macy’s are the only anchors that remain (Bon Marche became Macy’s in the early 2000s), and most of the stores are locally owned. I’m not sure Tilt is still operating, and the food court has only two local tenants.
On the plus side, Famous Footwear, Bath & Body Works and Big 5 Sporting Goods have maintained a presence there. But even I wonder if they will stick around, seeing as there is less foot traffic in the mall these days.
A Four-Fold Gut Punch to the Mall
Three Rivers Mall seemed to go into decline as soon as Emporium left, but it was also exacerbated by other factors. Emporium couldn’t be solely blamed, as I think four main gut punches to the mall were landed in rapid succession around the same timeframe that ultimately proved nearly fatal for the mall.
1. Triangle Center opened. Just north of downtown Longview, the Triangle Mall had operated from the 1960s to around 2002 or so. It was bounded by a triangular street pattern of 15th Avenue to the west, Ocean Beach Highway to the north, and the hypotenuse Washington Way. That mall was somewhat crappy, but was home to Montgomery Wards and a Newberrys store, as well as Pay ‘N’ Save (which later became Payless Drug Store).
Wards shut down in 2000 after Newberrys bit the dust, and with Payless as the only tenant, Triangle Mall had met its end. It was just unable to sustain itself with local stores like It’s Alive Pets, Willoughby’s, Transfer T’s and the auto license shop.
Triangle Mall was demolished and in its place sprang up the open-air Triangle Center, a mish-mash of stores that now boasts Ross Dress for Less, Michaels, Ace Hardware, and a couple stores that relocated from Three Rivers in Lane Bryant and EB Games.
I remember at the time calling it a risky move but it looks to have paid off in the years since. There is no doubt in my mind many Three Rivers Mall customers now frequent the Triangle Center, which makes more sense anyway as it is close to the downtown Longview retail core.
2. High unemployment in the early 2000s. The timber industry was hit hard, Reynolds Metals shut down and the recession was felt in the Northwest long before the Great Recession hit nationally. As such, a high unemployment rate meant bad things for retail in Cowlitz County.
I’m not sure the area has ever fully recovered although indications are that local folks are striking out on their own and starting small businesses up and down the Commerce Avenue corridor. They seemed to be well-supported last I visited, and might be indicative of a general trend toward favoring local retailers and eschewing the chains in the desire to revitalize Longview’s downtown area.
3. Kelso’s not that far from Portland. Kelso and Portland are connected by that asphalt ribbon known as Interstate 5, and only 50 minutes of travel time puts you in downtown Portland if you’re coming straight from Kelso.
Oregon boasts tax-free shopping, Portland has a large variety of retail outlets and malls, and there’s just more to do there. Enough said on that front.
4. The Internet retail boom came about. If you shop on the Internet, you know just how easy it is. In many instances, you can buy stuff tax-free online. Why bother going to a brick and mortar store?
Is Three Rivers Mall Truly Dead?
It remains to be seen if Three Rivers Mall can recover. As I wrote above, the fact one of the mall’s anchor spaces has not been leased out on a more permanent basis in 10 years is a bad sign. Now a second anchor is gone.
I must mention that the Kelso Public Library now occupies the area that once housed Posters Etc., Treasure House, Centerville, Jean Nicole and more. That was a shrewd move to bring foot traffic into the mall and also to save money on operating costs for the library.
Is the mall sustainable? Who knows. Obviously there had to have been studies done by people whose jobs it was to forecast the economy and general traffic patterns of the area. After all, the mall DID have some success in the 1990s.
But the way I see it, and granted, I am after all an outsider now — there haven’t been any major retailers move in there for quite some time.
I’d like to be proven wrong when I say this, but I’m going to say it anyway: Three Rivers Mall is dead. Long live the Three Rivers Mall.