The layout of the mall is rather strange. The two levels it has do not exactly matching up, and unfortunately I was unable to photograph the mall directory to show this. In fact, the lower level is noticeably smaller. It actually ends in a wall offering your choice of going upstairs to continue on the single level to Sears or to enter JCPenney on the right, so basically a significant portion of the Sears wing is on one level as an extension of the upper level. Apparently this wall was the previous location of the mall's movie theater, which closed in November 2008. The theater itself had been closed before, but reopened in 2005 under new ownership. The top level of the mall passes over the old movie theater as well. The loss of the theater was coupled with a difficult year where they lost several major tenants including Kay Bee Toys and B. Dalton, both already struggling companies that were already being phased out.
The above three photos are a view along the bottom level between the main Belk women's store (formerly Parks-Belk) and Belk Men, Home and Kid's (formerly Miller'sand Hess's). The store on the left in the second photo is Piccadilly cafeteria. Also notice how the second floor is somewhat shielded from view from the bottom floor in the second photo despite being open. The first photo is a view from the second floor looking the opposite direction in the same area as the third photo.
This is walking between the two-level court between the two Belk's to the end of the lower level at the closed movie-theater and JCPenney mall entrance.
The court in front of JCPenney and the old movie theater features an elevator to the second level and an artificial rock climbing wall. Malls seem to have more stuff for the kids these days, but despite a reasonably attractive theme the mall could use a few more plant and water features. Aronov malls tend to have these, so I sure with they would put some in here.
The mall is otherwise a T-shape with the two Belk's on the each side of the top of the T and Sears on the bottom part with JCPenney on the east side in the middle. The Belk portion is completely two level with the bottom part of the T also two levels up the the old theater and JCPenney mall entrances. The mall also has entrance wings extending near Belk Men, Home and Kid's (Top of the T), Sears and across from JCPenney. The design in the mall also seems to somewhat shield its two level orientation, which seems to overall have to do more with the terrain than size. Indeed, the extremely mountainous terrain in the Tri-Cities area created some complex building issues, but in this case it resulted in a very fascinating little mall, though the design does share many similarities with sister mall Fort Henry Mall.
Beyond JCPenney, the upper level of the mall reverts to just one level extending to Sears. A makeshift food court fills the center part, though, with only Chick-Fil-A and Great American Cookie Co. qualifying as a chain restaurant. This works, because a food court would be a poor investment for the mall due to a smaller market. Many smaller malls have phased out their food courts such as Gadsden Mall that I covered.
On my way to Sears.
Sears court is lower than the rest of the "upper" level giving the mall a small court with a bit more presence. The "Mountain Music Museum" is to the left next to Sears.
Here I am looking at a small entrance wing to the right of the Sears court. Note the ramp on the right.
A look back at the step-up from the Sears court to the rest of the mall and upper level.
When Bristol Mall opened, it featured a more local flavor than was offered today. The mall's south anchor was Parks-Belk with its north anchor Knoxville-based Miller's. While both stores were two level, the other anchor Sears was one level. While Parks-Belk was typical for the period Belk stores in design featuring distinctive canopies, the Miller's store was rather strange. Its upper floor is a conventional sized store, but its lower level only contained half the footprint of the upper level. It was laid out on that floor as basically a half-basement with the store seemingly tapered with the hillside instead of dug down into it. Miller's eventually became Hess's before becoming Belk Men, Kids and Home. Parks-Belk also was a little different in that it actually became Belk directly instead of converting to Proffitt's inbetween, thus Belk has always had a presence at this mall. Had this mall been in Tennessee, perhaps Proffitt's would have taken that spot.
A look at the beginning of the lower level from the second floor.
Looking back from the end of the lower level toward Sears. Note that the mall steps up and is elevated along most of the one-level portion of the Sears wing.
A look back at the upper level from JCPenney to the Belk wing. Note that the first level is rather obscured from view. I tend to think this would hurt businesses on the lower level to have such a poor view, and indeed I noticed the lower level lacked many stores.
Belk Men's, Home and Kid's, formerly Miller's/Hess's, mall entrance from the upper level. It is not a very large store at all.
A look along the upper level of the Belk wing from the junction of the Sears/JCPenney wing to Belk, formerly Parks-Belk.
The mall in many ways has not really shed a lot of its 1970's elements, but it has been renovated at some time: most likely in the 1990's. The 1990's was when JCPenney added onto the mall creating a fourth anchor and the third two-level store with arrival likely around 1995. Other notable tenants in the mall include a Piccadilly Cafeteria and a rather unique feature with a museum dedicated to the local music history next to Sears. Bristol was the birthplace of country music, so a museum was placed in the mall to pay tribute to something of great cultural value to the city Also similar to 70's-era malls, Bristol Mall does not truly have a food court. A couple restaurants are grouped on the Sears wing near a side entrance on the upper level, but these hardly constitute an official food court. Sadly, the mall seems to be languishing in terms of fashionable chain stores...something that it seems Johnson City won the war on. As the city in the region with the smallest population, this is a real problem. Bristol TN/VA has less than 50,000 people. Both Kingsport and Johnson City are far more populous with Johnson City the largest. While the population is enough to maintain the mall as is, it is not enough to make the mall competitive or fashion-forward like its Johnson City rival. Most of the stores in the mall are similar to what can be found in modern upscale strip centers such as those anchored by Target and Kohl's.
Belk, formerly Parks-Belk, mall entrance. Belk clearly renovated this within the past 10-15 years.
Looking back along the solidly two-level Belk wing toward Belk Men, Home and Kid's.
Looking back along the upper level of the two-level portion of the Sears wing from the Belk wing.
Escalators in the middle of the Belk wing looking towards Parks-Belk. Note that the escalators are the older narrow gauge style.
JCPenney's mall entrance from the lower level. It is a particularly bland one at that.
While it is an interesting mall, its location in the long run did not turn out to be so prime. The vacancy problem is not a small issue with each city in the Tri-Cities fighting to have the best of the three malls. Fort Henry Mall is trying to redevelop and The Mall at Johnson City turned out to have the best location as I-181 morphed into a new major interstate highway, I-26, linking to Asheville and points south. Not only that, but the entire market seems to be under-served in retail. Not one mall in the region contains any department store more upscale than Belk with neither Macy's nor Dillard's showing any interest in opening stores there. Perhaps Von Maur might consider the market one day? Any mall upgrades as is will probably be steered to Johnson City since Fort Henry Mall is having major troubles of its own. This was not always the case, though, when Miller's was still around. All three malls in the region are under different ownership, and it seems this one would be doing better since Aronov took it over in 1999. Aronov runs successful malls in Alabama and Georgia, but it seems this mall has proved to be more challenging.
Here is a look at the ramp down from the single-level portion of the Sears wing toward the two-level portion.
Now, I am looking down into the lower level from the down-escalators along that wing tying the end of the lower level to the rest of the Sears wing.
A view of the escalators from the lower level. I forgot where this was.
Outside mall entrance to the upper level. This is across the mall from JCPenney.
Outside sign with theater marquee still intact. Piccadilly also has a banner, and Sears Auto Center is in view.
While I thought Bristol Mall was a nice mall, I could definitely sense the mall was at a crossroads. A mall without even an American Eagle is clearly a subpar mall, if not a troubled property, and the time I was there on a Friday evening before Easter it was not busy at all. For now, it appears to be sustaining itself, but it seemed the anchors were doing far better than the mall itself. In fact, Sears recently signed another long term lease at the mall, and the other anchors are committed to leases that will sustain at least that for the next decade. It is not uncommon, though, to have malls these days where the anchors are doing fine with a dead mall inbetween. Two malls I covered including University Mall in Pensacola, FL and Shannon Mall in Union City, GA are basically dead malls with successful anchor stores. The trend of anchors and malls being so clearly divorced from each other is a relatively new development at that, because they were once very co-dependent. As to the mall itself, if Fort Henry succeeds at renovation and expansion, it will definitely pull more customers away from Bristol Mall, which is exactly what it does not need.
Belk here, formerly Parks-Belk, is an absolute clone of the store at Fort Henry Mall except the fact it never carried the Proffitt's moniker. Note that the labelscar shows up here as well.
Belk Men, Home and Kid's, formerly Miller's, and Hess's before becoming a second Belk store. This store is a timepiece and also a clone of the now-closed Fort Henry Mall store.
Sears also matches Fort Henry Mall in all except the fact it maintains the older logo.
Due to attracting unwanted attention, I was not able to get a good picture of the JCPenney store, which is a more recent addition.
The problem with this mall is that there does not seem to be a good way to really increase this mall's appeal more than what has already been done. Pulling in a Books-A-Million and new attached theater would possibly help, but the theater space is a mystery to me. Perhaps the theater space could become an expanded lower level? Since the city does not support much retail, efforts should be made to funnel all retail normally found in strip malls into the mall itself. Bringing in stores like Rue 21 shows that such a plan can work. I believe the mall is still in demand, though obviously not like it once was, and keeping it modestly viable will not require anything more drastic than some good management, a few cosmetic changes and better marketing.
NOTE: I made a correction. Proffitt's never existed in this mall.