Before an Aug. 1, 1973, crowd of dignitaries and eager early morning shoppers, Bob Collier dedicated Signal Hill Mall to the comfort, pleasure and shopping convenience of the people of Statesville.
Through its various expansions and contractions, residents have spent the last 40 years passionately voicing their praises for, questions concerning and criticisms of the shopping center located on East Broad Street.
Within 15 years of its grand opening, exuberant pride for the ultra-modern mall gave way to questions about its impact on the health and viability of downtown Statesville. And in the last decade, a witches brew of bad timing, worse public relations and a global economic crisis brought the mall to its knees.
"We really regret what the economy has done to us and we’re looking very forward to turning it around and doing something that will be a real credit to Statesville the moment we feel like we’re ready to go,” said Collier, who partnered with Avery Jones as C&J Associates to build the mall.
“I think it will probably be in the next two or three years, surely.”
The news marks the beginning of the latest chapter in the story Signal Hill Mall and how it forever changed the face of retail in Statesville.
A New Dimension of Convenience
Residents started calling the area east of town Signal Hill after the name Statesville’s second radio station, WDBM, gave the road passing its tower in 1957.
When the 1960s brought Interstate 77 through Iredell County, C&J Associates built Newtowne Plaza east of the new highway based on a simple assumption.
“We just felt like that was a logical place for a retail development and we felt like the interstate was going to produce a lot of traffic and this would be the main entrance into Statesville,” Collier said.
As shopping malls grew in popularity across North Carolina, Collier said the partners saw an opportunity to better serve the retail shopping needs of Statesville.
The downtown was pretty full and the parking that malls provided was very attractive, we thought, for customers,” he said.
“It just seemed like everything fell into place and we were able to buy this land from Louis Bowels, so we built the first phase of the mall.”
A family friend of Collier, Bowels had built a big barn on the land in front of his estate, which still stands north of J.C. Penney, and was using the plot as a pasture for saddle horses.
Plans for the Signal Hill Mall were first announced on Dec. 10, 1971, and the R&L later reported on the “modern facility in which some 20 tenants individual tenants will be housed under a specially-designed, climate-controlled roof which virtually insures springtime shopping conditions the year round.”
The 250,000-square-foot mall opened on Aug. 1, 1973, anchored by three major department stores -- Belk, Spainhours and Woolworth -- with parking for more than 1,500 cars and rounded out with “a full complement of well-known local, regional and national merchants.”
To handle the sheer volume of color advertisements for the mall and its merchants, the R&L had to increase its press capacity by 50 percent.
With businesses eager for more space, Signal Hill Mall opened a north wing, providing room for J.C. Penney and more small tenants. By 1988, the mall housed 42 stores, employed more than 700 people and covered about 350,000 square feet.
Local historian Steve Hill said he was still a high school student when C&J Associates developed the mall.
"Back then, as a youngster, I didn’t know the economic implications for something like that,” Hill said. “We all thought it was progress. I don’t think anyone really thought about the strength of the downtown being diluted, but it certainly was for several years,” he said.
“Pretty much the three big anchors for downtown became the three big anchors for the new mall,” Hill said, referring to the large department stores.
The link between Signal Hill Mall and the decline of downtown retailers is less direct in Collier’s mind.
“It was just a natural part of the growth. It had to happen out here, we thought,” Collier said. “But the downtown folks hated to lose those particular tenants from downtown to out here.”
The Lost Decade
In 2004, C&J Associates began enacting plans to give Signal Hill Mall the face lift it would need to survive in the 21st Century.
“We realized it was getting some age and we needed to modernize it and upfit it and renovate it and expand it because everything was going well at that time,” Collier said. “And we were working seriously on that, then all of a sudden the economy tanked, and that was the end of that for the time being.”
In preparation for the major overhaul, the mall stopped renewing leases to increase the flexibility developers would have during the renovation. Collier said Peebles department store, Winn-Dixie supermarket and various smaller stores fell victim to this process.
"We had a whole lot of different concepts about how we might do [the renovations] and we decided at that time we needed not to get ourselves involved in any additional longtime leases that we’d have to buy our way out of in effect, or spend money renovating spaces that may not fit into the new redevelopment or plan,” Collier said.
Without the newly renovated mall to justify the mall’s booting some of its tenants, the public has grown increasingly acrimonious in its feelings and opinions toward the mall.
"I can understand how people are disappointed – we’re disappointed we’ve had to do it this way, but we haven’t had any control over it with the economy being like it’s been,” said Collier, who also explained why the mall failed to explain the situation publically.“We didn’t want to discourage some of our local tenants who would be affected by it.”
Forgotten, but not gone
For the people who work in Signal Hill Mall, it’s hard to understand why many of the people of Statesville have decided to simply forget about their local mall.
"People who have known me for years say, ‘What do you do?’ and I say, ‘I work at the bookstore in the mall,’ and they say, ‘Do we have a bookstore in the mall?’” said Peggy O’Malley, assistant manager of Bookland. “They don’t even come in this mall because they think it’s not big enough and occupied enough.”
Many write off the mall based on judgments made with unfair criteria, said Les Clarke, manager of Armada Music & DVD.
“If you go to another city the size of Statesville, you would be hard-pressed to find a mall this nice. And that’s what I don’t get about people: They whine and complain, but then they compare Statesville to Charlotte. Charlotte’s the 17th largest city in the country,” Clarke said. “We’re surrounded by big malls, so everybody downs this mall, but Statesville’s not as big as Hickory or Winston or Charlotte.”
For Signal Hill Mall’s latest tenant, a piano shop called Jack’s Furniture and Piano Restoration, the location is actually a step up.
“We have a store in a strip mall close to the Salisbury Mall down there, and we decided to close it and try Statesville,” said Nancy Holloway. “The Statesville mall has a lot more traffic than the location that we were in previously. We’ve had a lot of people stop by and everyone’s very nice here.”
And while everyone would like to see the mall freshly renovated and full of customers and stores, there are some aspects of Signal Hill Mall people want to see stay the same.
“When you think about it, Iredell County has no other mall, so I would like to see them build another mall instead of just a shopping center,” O’Malley said
“It generates spontaneous sales just by being in a mall because, a lot of times, a person could come in to look and see something they didn’t realize they were interested in.”
Regardless of how fancy it might become, Signal Hill Mall should strive to retain its current atmosphere, said Billie Holland, who works at Kids@Play children's museum and serves as the mall’s de facto help desk.
“I still want to keep hometown friendly; I don’t want to get too uppity. If we grow, I want to still have that family atmosphere that we have now,” Holland said.
“If we grow, that’s the important thing: treat people with hometown kindness as they come in and not to be snotty because we have a new mall.”
At long last, Signal Hill Mall has begun to get indications that the economy is turning around.
“We have a number of major national developers that want to partner with us or want to represent us that we’re talking to right now about the prospects,” said Collier. “A couple of them think it’s little bit premature and others think it’s time to get started on it so when the economy does really come back, like we all hope and think it will, that we’ll be in position to move forward.”
At this point, developers have yet to hammer out the details of the new project, but Collier said plans will likely include some big-box stores along with smaller tenants.
“The potential is there for all types and sizes of retailers,” he said.
Many exciting concepts for the mall remain on the table, including the possibility of combining Newtowne Plaza and Signal Hill Mall into a single shopping center.
More broadly, Collier said the plans to renovate the mall are just one indicator that growth will be the central theme of Statesville’s next chapter.
“My concept, I think Statesville is going to explode as soon as the economy turns around completely because it’s already consumed Concord and the towns around us. It’s pretty well consumed Mooresville and, of course, Huntersville and Cornelius – so we’re next,” Collier said.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to resist it now. It’ll be a mixed blessing, if it happens, and I don’t see how it can help but happen.”