As Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan made his way through the vacant Rolling Acres Mall for the first time on Wednesday afternoon he said, “This reminds me of fictional movies where there’s nothing around but … us.”
He was walking down the former Dillard’s concourse toward the center atrium, which used to have a water fountain.
“It’s got an apocalyptic feel,” he said.
The city of Akron became the owner of the interior of the mall and some land around it, about 50 acres, on Friday after Summit County foreclosed on the mall owner after eight years of legal maneuvering. The mall closed in 2008.
The owner, California-based Premier Ventures, owed $1.3 million in back taxes, having never paid taxes since it bought the mall in 2010 from the previous owner, who also was behind on taxes.
As Horrigan and other city officials walked through the empty halls of the once bustling two-story mall, shards of broken glass crunched under their feet.
They walked into stores with flashlights. In one store, a lone men’s brown dress shoe rested among algae-covered debris.
Several areas of the mall had tall trees and plants and moss, thriving under skylights devoid of glass that let in sunlight and rain.
But still, “it’s not as shocking as I thought it would be,” he said a few minutes later as he stood on the second floor near the former JCPenney store.
The railings were gone. The escalators had debris. The lower level was filled with trees and litter, including a tire.
“There’s obviously no rehab opportunities with this particular place,” the mayor said. “It looks as bad as the videos I’ve seen, too. This just makes it even more surreal because it’s live and you get to see how much damage there is in here. It just kind of confirms the fact that I think it needs to come down and we’ll work toward that end pretty quickly.”
The mayor was on an exclusive tour with the Akron Beacon Journal. It was Horrigan’s first time inside the mall since it closed. He was accompanied by Akron Service Director John Moore, Deputy Service Director Chris Ludle and Charles Brown, deputy mayor of public safety. Larry Jenco, who owns the former Dillard’s department store and uses it for storage, and his son, Kevin, showed the group around.
Horrigan said the mall didn’t smell as bad as he expected. But as the group went to the lower level and ventured into the dark, dank hallways to tour the former movie theater — still intact with its theater seats, red carpet with pictures of movie reels and big screen — they smelled and felt the mustiness.
Brown worked 35 years ago in security for the former O’Neil’s department store, which eventually became Macy’s at the mall.
“I’m trying to reconcile my memories of walking through here,” he said as he toured the empty mall. “It was always busy.
“It makes me sad. I hadn’t been in here since it closed,” he said.
The city’s first task will be to secure all parts of the mall and have police monitor it so vandals and thrill-seekers can no longer trespass, Brown said.
Horrigan said he knows there are a lot of people who are curious about what the inside of the mall looks like, but “it’s safety. We can’t do guided tours to let people reminisce.”
Horrigan said the city will work to see what makes sense for redevelopment of the site.
A group of Chinese investors has been in touch with the city and said they are interested in a light manufacturing hub. Eric Tran, managing partner for the group, said the group also had an initial interest in using the site for a state or federal penitentiary. That is still a possibility, he said.
But Horrigan said, “I’m not looking to do a federal prison in the city of Akron.”
The five former department stores that are attached to the mall are owned separately.
Dan O’Connor, president of Pinnacle Recycling, a commercial recycler that bought the former Sears location, said the city’s plans to demolish the mall and redevelop the site is good news.
“We’re looking forward to having something done with that area, whether it’s demolished or repurposed for that area,” he said, adding that anything would be better than the vandals in the mall.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty