Saturday, July 18, 2009

Riverbend Mall: Rome, GA


Arial view of the mall in its final days.

It was Northwest Georgia's first shopping mall, and now it is merely a memory. Faced with nothing more than limestone brick and a simple, yet classy 70's modernist exterior, Riverbend Mall opened to the public on September 18, 1975. Original anchor tenants included Belk Rhodes, Miller's of Knoxville, Lay's Variety Store of Cleveland, TN and Morrison's Cafeteria. Most of the stores in the mall, however, were local merchants, most of whom had also previously operated downtown, and it took over a year to completely fill the mall. Morrison's Cafeteria, one of the first, opened at the mall almost a month after the mall did. Costing $10 million in 1975 dollars, the mall was one story, rather small at 330,000 square feet and was typical of the era with a very dark interior including dark brown floor tiles, a dark brown lattice ceiling and the only light in the mall coming from the shops. It was also a basic I-shaped design.


Riverbend was unique in that it was built by a small, local developer in lieu of a large conglomerate. The local Ledbetter family built the mall, and it was designed by architectural firm Stevens & Wilkinson. Stevens & Wilkinson are best known in Georgia for designing all of the Rich's and Richway stores. The mall was built across the street from East Rome High School in what was at the time a largely undeveloped area near the end of a short freeway that formed part of the Rome Connector (U.S. 27 and S.R. 53).




A collection of logos from the original mall. Two Miller's logos are shown here. The second is from after the Allied acquisition. The Lay's logo is original from 1975.

Riverbend Mall was in a strange geographic location, yet very highly visible, where it rested in the 100 year floodplain of the Etowah River wedged on a rather narrow strip of land between Turner McCall Blvd. (U.S. 27) and the river, divided from the river by Riverbend Drive. The original developer owned most of the land around the mall, and the mall was located at the end of a major expressway with high visibility. However, most of the retail development was actually closer to the Garden Lakes area northwest of the city due to the more abundant buildable land outside of the natural floodplain.


This photo of Belk Rhodes from the Rome News-Tribune was one of several taken for the mall's 10th anniversary on September 17, 1985.


Another shot of the exterior taken for the mall's 10th anniversary on September 17, 1985.

Rome was neither an extremely large nor extremely fast growing city. The location was just right, and not surprisingly, the mall was a raging success. Unfortunately, however, it resulted in the continued decline of downtown Rome. While that was not the intention of the Ledbetter's, the mall was built very close to downtown in a time when downtown was not exactly in vogue. Belk Rhodes, which had operated downtown since 1936, moved to the mall when it opened and closed the downtown store in early 1976. Like most Belk stores of the era, local residents Thelma and Cecil Rhodes ran the stores selling Belk merchandise with the Belk family sharing expenses, so the decision to move was that of the Rhodes family and not of the Belk company at that point. Sears oddly did not anchor the mall, however, but was located on the opposite end of Riverbend Drive as an existing free-standing store. That Sears building still exists today, but the Sears moved from there in 1991 to Mount Berry Square.


Interior shot of the mall taken for the only renovation. Photo by Angela Turner for the Rome News-Tribune from March 20, 1989.

In the first 15 years, the mall saw a few changes. A movie theater was added to the mall next to Miller's in 1979. Of course, 1979 was also the year of the first of two major floods in Rome that affected the mall. According to a Rome News-Tribune article from September 17, 1985, the flood of 1979 put three feet of water in the mall for six hours. Nevertheless, the flood did not affect the mall businesswise at that point in a city accustomed to flooding problems. The mall just got cleaned up and everything got back to business.


Belk ad from the mall's 10th anniversary. Note the mall logo and no mention of "Belk Rhodes". Only the 1975 ads showed the full name.

The next event to happen at the mall came in late 1985 when junior mall anchor Lay's Variety Store liquidated along with its 20 other locations. JCPenney later filled the location in April 1987, moving from its location downtown. Also in 1987, Miller's parent company Allied Stores, was bought out by Hess's of Allentown, PA. This move resulted in the rebranding of the store as Hess's. In early 1989, the mall underwent an extensive interior renovation. New skylights were added to brighten up the previously cavernous mall, floor tiles were replaced, two hand-made Italian fountains were installed and a new food court was added known as "Food Fair", connecting where a previous rear entrance had existed. The new food court was elevated higher than the rest of the mall out of the flood plain, likely to keep at least some of the mall from re-living the 1979 flood event. It also brought Rome its first Chick-Fil-A. This food court expanded the mall by another 19,000 square feet.



Arial view of the mall with the new food court along with a couple shots of the newly completed Food Fair. Photo by Angela Turner for the Rome News-Tribune from March 20, 1989.

Unfortunately, the rest of the mall was not prepared for the next event and it came only a year later. In early 1990, North Georgia was dealing with its worst flooding in years. In both January and March of that year, the mall was severely flooded damaging stores and damaging the reputation of the mall as well. The Ledbetters took a gamble building the mall in a major flood plain. Unfortunately, they did this because the town itself was always flood prone and had no real ordinances about this. If the mall had somehow been built elevated or the ground under it elevated over the flood plain, perhaps it would still be here today. While the mall mopped up and replaced carpets for continued operation into 1991, the flooding pretty much dashed long-term hopes for the future. A new mall was opening north of the city near Berry College. It would be larger, newer, on high ground and was being developed by the then new owners of Hess's department store, Crown America.


View of mall prior to the first renovation. Notice the Belk Rhodes sign in the background. These photos were from the Rome News-Tribune for the September 18, 1985 10th anniversary.

When Mount Berry Square opened in 1991 and was hardly a replacement for Riverbend. Isolated far from all other development, it seemed that Riverbend could have survived. The problem was, the anchors did not see the merit in remaining in an a small, aging mall where they might be flooded again. Belk Rhodes had promised in 1990 to keep two locations, but this was only a half-kept promise. JCPenney did not hesitate to leave the mall, but Hess's was in a lease at the mall into the late 1990's, so it stayed along with Belk Rhodes.


Grainy photo of the original construction of the mall from 1975 (Rome News-Tribune).

1993 was the beginning of the end for Riverbend. The new mall was having a very real effect on Riverbend by this time. Belk Rhodes hung on a couple years before replacing the Riverbend store with an outlet in late 1993. Also, early in the year Hess's was sold off in pieces with the northern division going to Bon-Ton and the southern stores mostly to Proffitt's...except one. Yes, a Bon-Ton found its way into the old Hess's at the mall. This was the ONLY Bon-Ton store in the entire chain to be located in Georgia, and it was indeed looked like an afterthought from the day it opened. Indeed, the store opening there was due to Proffitt's lack of interest in the location, but most likely due to the lease requirements.

Over the next several years the once successful mall began to empty out. Unfortunately, the only real reason that Belk Rhodes and Hess's/Bon-Ton were even there was that they were bound to their leases. While the renovation helped to keep a two-mall scenario in a town with less than 150,000, the mall itself was in the midst of a mass exodus that left only a couple store in operation after 2000. In 1995, the Belk Rhodes outlet closed at the mall when their lease expired. In 1998, Bon-Ton also left the mall once their lease also expired. The store was a financial strain on the company with a location extremely far from its home base.

In 1998, the owners considered options of what to do with the empty mall. A medical mall idea was proposed, and Coosa Medical Group then opened in half of the old Belk Rhodes. Morrison's Cafeteria was one of the last tenants there, and left the mall that year for a free-standing location. CVS pharmacy, located in the former Revco, also hung on to the end. CVS had an outside entrance in front of the mall, so they were not dependent on a mall with no traffic for business. The former JCPenney also saw continued life as Heilig-Meyers furniture, which eventually failed with the entire chain by 2000. Ford's Furniture replaced Bon-Ton, and it remained at the mall until it was closed for demolition. By 2002, the 27 year old mall was sent to the retail graveyard.

Demolition began in 2002 of the mall, by then a sad sight. The mall without any real anchors or interest looked bland and forelorn. In its place is a bustling strip center that oddly carries much of the same tenants that could have been modern tenants in the mall. Oddly enough, though, the ghost of Riverbend lives on as Coosa Medical Group refused to give up their offices in the back half of the Belk Rhodes. As a result, that one part of the mall was allowed to remain. It is all particularly strange to me, because this is the exact way we entered the mall years ago. It is also strange to see a strip mall there today that draws crowds like Riverbend once did...and built by none other than the original developers of Riverbend Mall.


Photo from late 2002 of front view of Belk Rhodes at Riverbend Mall during demolition. A Kroger now stands at this site above the flood plain.

Today, Riverbend's replacement is as successful as the mall the day it opened in 1975. Likewise, the city itself that Riverbend replaced has revived. Meanwhile, the mall that replaced it, Mount Berry Square, is struggling. Today, simply "Riverbend" features a Kroger, Barnes and Noble, Ross Dress for Less, Pier 1 Imports and mall tenants such as Hibbett's Sports and others. The "brown mall" lives on: just not as a mall.

Note: Rome News-Tribune archives were used for much of the information and all but one of the photos provided here.

Note: original post dated February 21, 2007.

26 comments:

  1. Memories of Riverbend. I recall the visits to Rome and going to the Sears after Riverbend, much older than the mall,and more interesting than today's Sears. My family would have lunch at Morrison's and us boys would go to Aladdin's Castle while Mom and my sister went to Belk and Miller's. ASFIK, this was the only Miller's in Georgia and for a time the only Hess's in Georgia. JCPenney was definitely later to the mall, it stayed downtown until about 1980 and occupied a former tenant, though I think it was another retailer rather than a theater. The food court was definitely set off by being elevated higher than the rest of the mall, giving the main mall corridor a sunken floor aspect after the addition was made.

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  2. One last possibility on the vintage of S-L. It may have opened in stages. This was typical of early strips. Perhaps, that's why it looks older than '62 and odd design elements.

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  3. updating the old riverbend mall... as we speak i am getting information together to make a book of sorts of the history of riverbend. memories, photos, etc. I grew up in that mall as I was born in 1973 the same year the mall started construction. In Sept. of '75 the mall opened at a cost of 10 million dollars. The anchor stores included Belk rhodes at one end and Millers at the other. I can remember getting candy from the counter in belks before going home! Morrisons was located to the middle of the mall and adjacent to it was aladdin's castle. Riverbend cinema was where I first saw Star Wars in '78 at Millers end. beside the theater was Lay's dept. store. other stores included in the mall were as i remember... Pet luv , Newsom's music, World Bazaar, Pardue's jewlery, GNC, Circus World, The Orange Bowl, Martins Men Wear,Gateway Card's &Books, Kinney's Shoes, Hicory Farms, Stuarts, Revco, The Buttercup,Kays, Travel Center,Baskin Robbins, King and Queen, and I am sure others as well that I am forgetting.The Mall flooded in March of 79 and again in 90. Even though the corner of the old Belk Rhodes is still there the rest of the mall is all but a memory! Help with the historical recording of the mall from 73-2002, contact me with photos, video, paper clippings and memories to: peteysnakes@hotmail.com

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  4. Very interesting...so the penney's there was originally lay's department store? was that a rome-only store? unfortunately i do not have any historic photos. i know somebody who has demolition photos, but they may be hard to get from that person.

    please tell me when you have your book published. i would love to purchase a copy. this mall has very strong childhood attachments for me and it is very hard for me to drive by there and see it gone. it is interesting how such a small, plain mall has had such a pull on so many people. it is also interesting how hard it has been for its replacement, Mt. Berry Square, to be very successful. I hope to continue to hear comments about this place so I can never forget this place of my childhood.

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  5. i do beleive lay's was a chain store that closed and jc penny opened in its place later. the stores i am listing are stores originally brought in when the mall opened in fall of 75. the mall also flooded again in 80 but only 2' or so. i have spoke with several people who are willing to share photos ect. with me for the historical recording of the mall and should be interesting to say the least please feel free to write me at the address given and i will be happy to share info with you as it becomes available. if you have info please do not hesitate to email me at any time. what has started out as a quest for memory has turned into a search for history!it doesnt matter how hard i try to forget its gone it will always be a part of my life as well as many other childhood lives as well!

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  6. I lived 25 miles from Rome and Riverbend was a very popular place to go, despite the small size of the mall. I went to high school in Cedartown and Riverbend was where we'd often go to eat on the way back from Berry College.

    However, the mall was depressing and sad in its final days. It seemed very small and the color scheme (especially the floor) just didn't create a good positive atmosphere. After the Belk was downgraded to an outlet store and JCPenney closed and the food court never really took off (being mostly empty), and a rather depressing Bon Ton occupied the former Miller's store, the mall seemed mostly occupied by middle-age and senior citizens.

    Mount Berry Square opened to a large crowd of people on opening weekend (I was there) but there were actually very few stores there other than the anchors. I was amazed at how long it took for most of the spaces to "fill in". I remember the place being so crowded that it was difficult to walk that weekend, but very little was there! Riverbend hung on for years afterwards, but it died a slow, depressing death.

    Abour Sears -- I agree that the old Rome Sears on 8th Ave. was a great store. Most of my clothes from my school years came from there, as did practically all of our home appliances. As a kid, I loved the video game section where the TVs and consoles would be set up. Games were simple then (pong and many variants, and later the Atari 2600). I'd also enjoy sitting and watching TV in the electronics section.

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  7. I'm from Rome and among many memories, I remember attending the opening of the mall -- Hank Aaron was brought in to sign autographs. Pete, if you are still interested in writing your book, post a reply. I know the original developers/owners and may be able to put you in touch so you can get info you would be interested in.

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  8. I woke up this morning thinking about Riverbend "Small", as we used to call it. I tried to place the layout in my head. I grew up in Rome and have great memories of the mall. It was a great place to meet girls in the late '70's and my good friend met his wife there. (I remember it destinctly, we were out cruising on a MONDAY night...) I believe I have some pictures of the flood in '90. I'd moved away years earlier, but was in town to visit my Dad. I'll see if I can find them and let you know. Mr. Eckroat, would you be related to the man who used to teach shop at Pepperell Junior High in the early '70's?

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  9. Wow! Reading these comments about the beloved Riverbend Mall brings back so many childhood memories. One of my favorite stores in the mall has not been mentioned yet...Athletic Attic, a sports store that really looked like someone's attic. Remember the 1 or 2 fountain(s) located in the middle of the mall. Also, does anyone remember the purple Fred Flintstone phones that used the line the mall in different areas. I remember Lay's store used to serve ice cream in the middle of the store (strange)! The portion of Belk's facing Turner McCall Blvd. was the "Budget Store". I remember the day when Newsom's Records became Wall's Sports as well. A huge highlight was when the Atl. Braves changed the look of their uniforms in 1981 and went on a caravan autograph tour, with a stop to Riverbend Mall. Folks like Niekro, Murphy, Horner, Benedict, Hubbard, and even Skip Carey and Pete Van Wieren were there. Wow, what a memory!! Man, I LOVED that mall!!! Digressing a bit, does anyone remember a restaurant across from the mall called The Hungry Bull? It was located on the corner of Hicks Drive and Turner McCall. The Burger King sits on that lot now. Someone please let me know if you have heard of that restaurant. I know I didn't dream that one, but I can't get anyone to remember it. I believe it may have been a steakhouse. Pete, I would love to get a copy of that book when you finish it. Hopefully, you can get some great pictures from someone ready this site.

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  10. hello again to all!!! i hope all are doing well this new year! the latest info on the mall is helping alot, whoever wrote concerning the school teacher... yes that is my dad "Dale Eckroat" retired and doing fine! Thank you so much for identifing the hungry bull. i have been racking my brain to find out what rest. that was. i have pic. of that when it flooded along with the mall. surprisingly out of the response to folks wanting a book i havent had much luck with info. much thanks to all who have contributed to this. i am still striving to get what i can info and picture wise. i have gotten in touch with r. ledbetter and received no response. all other help has turned up the same. you would think as long as that place was opened and as much as went on there that their would be more info. obviously not the case. i just finished a book called early graves that gave an overview of riverbend and rome in the early 80's and the kidnapping of lisa ann millacan. if you dont know about that book check it out, scary as you know what if you grew up here. i will continue to do my best at getting what i can together to do a book on r.b mall but any info and pic. are going to be greatly needed and appreciated. send to : peteysnakes@hotmail.com

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  11. Pete, I'm glad to hear Mr. Eckroat is doing fine! He was my favorite teacher at Pepperell Middle School, although I did my best to drive him crazy at first. He used to ask, in his northern accent, "Can I have everybody OVER here?", which I would parrot, much to his dismay. His usual response to me was "Fra-a-a-ank, stop being facetious!" I was in his class the first year the school opened, 1973, I think. Please pass on a hello from a former student.

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  12. I have so many childhood memories from the Riverbend Mall. My family and I would drive out to the mall every Saturday morning and I would head straight to Aladin's Castle. I must have spent hundreds of dollars in allowance money playing those games. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was my favorite to play as well as After Burner where one could sit in a cockpit of a fighter plane. It was so fun. Circus World before it became Kay Bee toys where I bought most of my He-Man and GI Joe toys. Then there was Pepermint Records. When I was seven years old, a contest was held there where a gentleman was asking all kinds of triva questions and I was selected to try and get one of them correct. The question he asked was from the Wizard of Oz. The question was which one of the characters wanted a heart and I answered correctly, the Tin Man. I won a ten dollar gift certificate and I bought the soundtrack to Rocky IV which I listened to all the time.

    Among my other favorite memories are of Christmas Time. Every year after Thanksgiving, Bruce Aaron from 11 Alive News would bring Santa Clause for the Christmas Season and I would wait in line with all the other kids to tell Santa all the things I wanted that year.

    I remember one year my mother took my brother, my cousin and I took us to see Santa Clause: The Movie there on Christmas Eve in 1985. There were a lot of wonderful memories that I carry from that mall and I really wish someone could have done something to keep it going the way it did in the 1980's. Mount Berry Square Mall near Armuchee sucks and always has.

    Going to the movie thearter there was always a blast for me. Superman IV, Top Gun, Teen Wolf and Star Trek IV were some of the movies I remember going to see in there. The 1980s where a really great time to be a kid.

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  13. how about duffy's deli and the tog shop?

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  14. WOW, I enjoyed reading all the comments about Riverbend and props to the author of the book. My family moved from Kentucky to Georgia and bought the Gateway Card Shop and renamed it Faye's Hallmark. My most vivid memory was the Orange Bowl across the hall and the cloud 9 frozen yogurt across from them. I'd get a sundae at least once a week and it cost $1.75. My mom sold the store to a couple from Atlanta and they eventually moved it across the street in the Kroger shopping center, but moved back to the new development where Riverbend once stood. So many firsts while I worked there, but my first credit card from Friedman's Jewelers comes to mind first. I left Rome in 1994, but wondered how many tenants were left when the mall closed for good in 2002? Knight's Jewelers was one and I'm not sure about Baskin-Robbins or Martin's mens clothing. A not so fond memory was of the owner's treatment to my mom after dad died in 1990. R.L. jacked her around with extra CAMS (Common Area Maintenace) fees and wanted her to move across the street to the Kroger shopping center (which he still owned) after he let Riverbend go into default when the balloon payment was due. If I can dig up some pictures I'll email them to you, I have some pictures of the 1990 flood somewhere and the expensive mess it left behind.

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  15. Wow that would be really fascinating to see those flood photos! Feel free to send those if you like. And regarding the owner...I knew it was a family affair with Mr. Ledbetter which I'm sure had its ups and downs. The nearby interchange that led to its construction bears that family name. For me, I continue to fantasize about giving Rome a really unique mall to make up for the loss of Riverbend and that pathetic excuse for a mall you have in North Rome. The question is...which would be the best side of town to build it?

    IMO Riverbend never should have died and it probably wouldn't have if not for it being landlocked and in a flood plain. It was otherwise in a perfect location and I remember stayed very busy before all the anchors jumped ship for the red herring out in the big sinkhole plain. It's unique I guess that with me being from Atlanta area that I would be fond of this place when it held no comparison to the Atlanta malls, but there was just something about it that I can't quite put my finger on.

    I tried to get more pics in 2002, but the mall was too far gone when I did. I heard they never really cleaned up that flood damage very well...mom said she saw fish scales and mud in the carpet and do not recall them replacing it either in the Belk. I think the last time I ever saw the inside of it was 1992 right before the new mall opened. We ate at Morrison's Cafeteria that day...another place much deserving a post here.

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  16. Wow. I had no idea anybody remembered that old mall. I knew it well. I hung out there when it first opened as a teanager. I worked at the Zales Jewelers for two years while at Floyd Jr. College. When I graduated from UGA in 1980 I went to work for Revco Drugs as a Manager Trainee and then managed that store from 1985 until 1989. I loved the food at Morrisons and shopped Belks, Millers, and Martin's for my clothes. I remember it being so crowded at Christmas that it would take me 20 minutes to get out of the parking lot to go to the bank.

    Working there gives me fond and not so fond memories of the mall. It was a lot funner hanging out as a kid rather than working 6 day work weeks as an adult. I do miss it though.

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  17. Wow.

    This mall was the zenith of excitement growing up in Rome.

    I have some pictures of the interior of Riverbend before it was demolished. I will try and hunt them down this week and email them to you if you'd like.

    The stuffed cobras at World Bazaar, the mist of the water fountains, the hopscotch carpet of Circus World, the smell of the Orange Bowl's pizza... all permanently locked in my head.

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  18. Evans A CriswellJuly 20, 2009 at 8:13 AM

    Riverbend Mall and Gadsden Mall were the two malls I saw the most as a kid. I was most likely to be in Riverbend on days when my father had to work and my mother and I would go up to Rome to shop. My mother loved to look around in Belk and I remember the Lay's store.

    I did research a few years ago on all the theatres that operated in Rome and somehow missed the one in the mall, and was never aware of a theatre operating in there. I wonder if it lasted less than 4 years, causing me to miss it in my "sweep".

    If anyone knows the correct opening date for the theatre at the mall and the movie that played on opening night, please post it!

    Here is a list of theatres I found:

    Movies at Mount Berry Square [6 screens], opened 1995/12/21

    Litchfield Cinemas [3 screens], opened 1982/12/09

    Rome 3 Theatres (Cobb), opened 1974/06/07

    Village Theatre, opened 1969/07/18 with "South Pacific"

    North 53 Drive-In, opened 1957/03/01 with "The Proud Ones" and "Good Bye, My Lady"

    West Rome Drive-In, opened 1951/06/29 with "Kansas Raiders" and "Undertow"

    Cedar Valley Drive-In, opened 1949/07/04 with "The Big Cat"

    First Avenue Theatre, opened 1949/05/16 with "Adventure In Baltimore"

    Gordon Theatre, opened 1935/09/02 with "Paris Nights" on the stage and "Accent On Youth" on the screen.

    DeSoto Theatre, opened 1929/08/05 with "The Rainbow Man" and "The Bath Between".

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  19. To Patrick Dean: Yes, certainly! I have been trying to track down photos for awhile.

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  20. I just found out something about the mall theatre space. A store called The Briar Patch opened October 38. 1988 in the space formerly occupied by the theatre, which had closed less than a year earlier. The theatre seems to have opened early April 1979, according to a snippet I found online of a newspaper archive, and it had 250 seats and cost $130000 and was run by Lam Amusement Company.

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  21. There is a typo in the entry I made above. October 28, 1988 was the date that a store called The Briar Patch opened in the old theatre location at Riverbend.

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  22. I worked at Esserman's and Dicky's shoes...remember those two?

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  23. CINDY formerly from rome gaApril 4, 2010 at 1:20 PM

    I REMEMBER THERE WAS A STORE CLOSE TO THE ORANGE BOWL THAT DID IRON ON DECALS ON T-SHIRTS, I HAVE RACKED MY BRAIN TO REMEMBER THE NAME OF THIS STORE, IF ANYONE CAN REMEMBER THE NAME OF THIS STORE . PLEASE LET ME KNOW , THANKS

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    1. I remember the store but not the name. This is where I got my first Farrah Fawcett T shirt in the middle 70's

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  24. My dad Santa Joe was at Riverbend Mall for many years. He was the "real" Santa with the natural white flowing beard and hair. He touched a lot of people during his 15 plus years there. Good memories!

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  25. I really miss Riverbend Mall! It was quite the social hub for the teenagers. Me and my friends used to do the "circle" around the mall to meet boys. It was THE thing to do back then. The good ole' days!!!!!!!!

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