Quarter century ago, local retailing took major step

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Column by Ben Sheroan, editor

By Ben Sheroan

The Thanksgiving bird had not been served when the battle plan was being outlined. The generals for this Black Friday rush on retailers had their priority objectives detailed on paper. They scanned the newspaper’s holiday gift guide and slick inserts for bargain opportunities.
The marching orders were detailed and the missions began before dawn. In fact, in modern holiday shopping battles, some pre-emptive strikes can be launched on Thanksgiving Day itself.
As the discussion took shape before the meal to celebrate our blessings, I thought back a quarter century. In 1985, the face of retailing changed in Hardin County. The 25th anniversary of Towne Mall came and went in late October without fanfare but this shopping season should not pass without giving thanks for it. Construction of the mall was a historic milestone for local shoppers and the entire community.
A few big-box discounters had discovered the buying power of Hardin County, but until the mall’s arrival, many Christmas wish lists required journeys to Jefferson County. With the opening of Snyder’s, Dawahares and J.C. Penney plus a variety of specialty shops at the new mall, that mentality changed.
Not only did Hardin County have a place of its own to do serious shopping, the mall immediately transformed North Dixie Avenue into a destination for our neighbors in Grayson, Hart, LaRue and Nelson counties.
The mall’s arrival created an excitement that is difficult to fathom today. At that time, E’town pretty much ended at the car dealers collected along Dixie. The U.S. 31W Bypass was new and there was no Ring Road. For my family in Vine Grove, after J.J. Newberry closed on the square, the choices were a pre-grocery Walmart in front of Freeman Lake or Kmart across town on North Mulberry. We might visit the Sears catalog center, look around Roses or exchange books of green stamps at the S&H redemption center but that was pretty much the extent of major shopping options.
The community had watched with anticipation for more than a year as the mall rose from the ground. The two-lane road that we knew Old 31W was sliced to provide room for the mall’s development. What’s now the southernmost corner of the parking lot had housed a trailer park where my sister lived briefly as a newlywed.
All of the other shopping options that we take for granted today followed the mall. The giant bookstore, clothing retailers, furniture stores, major discounters and office supply megastores all came along later. Kroger, Kmart, Lowes and Walmart would build bigger and newer stores in sight of the mall.
Other strip centers would pop up to take advantage of traffic attracted by the mall. One of the first was the Starlite Center, directly across from a Towne Mall entrance. The name honors the memory of Starlite Drive-In, the outdoor theater that once sat on that site.
That’s another reminder of how the mall reshaped Hardin County. In order to ensure movie quality, drive-ins were built beyond the edge of a community away from city lights. With all the signs, traffic and activity around the mall and its neighboring retailers, it’s startling to think this land once was isolated. It’s now the center of the region’s shopping experience.
Over the years, Towne Mall has changed and evolved. Revisiting a 25-year-old special section that marked its opening, I found slightly more than a half dozen original tenants still in place as the fortune of economic change pushed some stores aside in favor of new ones. It also served as a reminder that the Sears wing was added years later when a fourth anchor store arrived.
Despite the intervening years, the mall continues to be a central destination for shopping. I’m sure it will look different in another 25 years as will the entire local retail community. But I doubt any new shopping opportunity ever will have as much impact on Hardin County as Towne Mall’s arrival.
In fact, the Sunday paper where this column appears owes its existence to the decision by the Owensboro developer who built Towne Mall. The News-Enterprise expanded from weekday only to a Sunday edition thanks to the mall commitment and the healthy growth of retailers (and advertisers) that decision fostered.
Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com
or (270) 505-1746.