Efforts to revive the aging mall have been less than sucessful and corporate leases are expiring faster then they're being renewed.
The Blue Hen Corporate Center and Mall has been a landmark for more than 40 years, but what was once a vibrant and vital economic part of the city has become a nearly empty parking lot, vacant offices and a space for walkers.
The mall, located at 655 Bay Road, was turned into a corporate center years ago. However, Aetna — one of the main anchors left in the 450,000-square-foot building — recently decided not to renew the lease that ends in December.
Property manager Rosa Wilson said the owner Pettinaro Real Estate Development Company doesn’t know yet what’s going to be done with the space.
However, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Judy Diogo is hopeful, as the Blue Hen’s management has shown an ability to be in tune with what’s happening in the community.
“My opinion is management had a good view and always tried to fill the void and I hope that will continue,” she said. “I can’t define what that will be yet, but their folks seem to see the need.”
She’s also been told that a majority of the Dover Aetna employees will start working from home.
“That was good news to us, as much as we hate losing them as a business establishment with a physical location,” Diogo said.
Aetna representatives could not be reached for comment.
“Aetna moving out is not a good thing for the market. It’s not a good thing for the Blue Hen Mall, but it’s indicative of the market right now,” explained Dover commercial real estate broker Phil McGinnis.
There’s a huge vacancy of office space in Dover, he said, including a special kind of vacancy left by doctors moving into Eden Hill Medical Center.
“Nobody’s taking a chance right now,” McGinnis said, including owners running businesses out of their own properties.
The overall market from an office-leasing standpoint is terrible with no expansion and even some contraction, he added. The state is a big tenant in the Dover area, and even they are contracting.
The Blue Hen Mall was originally built in the late 1960s and was the only enclosed mall south of New Castle County, said Jim Flood Sr., publisher emeritus of the Dover Post and long-time Dover resident.
“It was a major shopping place in the community,” he said. “The Blue Hen Mall was done with a certain flair — flair for that time anyway.”
Flood remembers visiting the mall to work on its advertising and sitting in the restaurant that was part of Woolworth’s with a company manager and Zippy the Chimp, who often was scheduled for acts at Blue Hen.
There always was activity, whether it was weekly shows, decorations at Christmas and Easter, or the fishing pool where people could catch fish and throw them back, he said.
Jack Roe, who worked for 40 years in Dover Inspections and Planning, said many stores from the downtown area began to move over to the Blue Hen Mall, including J.C. Penney’s.
Sears and Roebuck Company, which was located on Loockerman Street, was interested in going to the Blue Hen, but Flood said Sears wanted to be out front and mall management wanted the department store in the back.
When an agreement couldn’t be reached, Sears combined with some other stores to create a secondary mall — the Dover Mall, which was the beginning of the end, he said.
The Dover Mall opened in 1982.
“The advent of the Blue Hen Mall drained the economic activity from downtown Dover,” Flood said. “Then the beginning of the Dover Mall drained business from the Blue Hen as well as downtown.”
Roe said another blow to the Blue Hen Mall was when Acme moved from where the Kent County Administrative Complex is placed now.
The mall went through a series of owners, eventually being changed over into the corporate center it is today.
McGinnis thought it was smart to convert the mall’s retail space to office space, as the property was adaptable to a number of uses.
“I thought the idea of converting two of the mall’s anchor stores into call centers was brilliant in its day,” he said, adding that the owners could offer attractive rental rates for space that was built for a $2 to $3 per square foot base rent.
However, he admits that day has passed as the industry has evolved and now filling the space could be difficult, especially with today’s market. McGinnis said the Blue Hen is suffering from many of the same obstacles as high rises are, except it’s horizontal, not vertical.
The Blue Hen Mall’s decline was inevitable as Dover is a fairly small retail market that just can’t support two malls, said expert Ross Schendel.
He is a co-author of the blog Labelscar, which has documented shopping malls and centers that have gone out of business since 2006. He said he’s been fascinated with the death of shopping malls that began in the 1990s.
“These malls that were communal space for so many people were going undocumented and being demolished,” Schendel said.
He visited Dover in the summer of 2008 and was amazed by the Blue Hen Mall.
“It’s basically like a dead mall museum,” Schendel said, referring to so much original architecture. “It’s so dated and hasn’t been changed.”
He and his blog co-author have visited more than two-thirds of the malls in the United States. Rarely can a mall be successfully converted into something else, Schendel said.
One example he knows of where a former mall is now a successful corporate center is in Oklahoma City because it began housing a lot of the offices after the Oklahoma City bombing. Another attempt he’s familiar with is in Wisconsin where a local billionaire is working to create a community center, an ongoing process that now even has a library on the premise.
However, successes are few and far between.
“Normally when a mall dies, it dies,” he said.
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