Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Northgate Mall: Tullahoma, TN

The strangest mini-mall I have ever run across is Northgate Mall in Tullahoma, TN. As the only mall in the southern portion of Middle Tennessee, the mall first opened for business in May 1976. Original tenants to the mall included TG&Y Family Center, Readmore Book-n-Card, Treasury Drugs (a division of JC Penney), Kroger, Ann Herbert Dress Shop, Bonanza Restaurant, Sound Shop, and Horner-Rausch Optical. The Castner-Knott department store opened at the mall in early 1977 [1]. Even though it has the appearance of mall originally converted from a strip mall, it was indeed an actual enclosed mall to start with, but it seems strange a mall would be developed in such a fashion.

Looking back from the Dillard's/Castner-Knott entrance through the mall. The mall doesn't go too much further beyond what you see.

Northgate Mall until 2009 was anchored by Dillard's, JCPenney, Goody's and Big Lots. The mall only has 15 stores aside from those anchors including tenants such as Bath & Body Works, Claires, a jewelry store, an Army Recruiting Center and a Ponderosa Steakhouse, which had already closed for good when I visited. Dillard's closed in March and Goody's closed at the beginning of the year. The Dillard's at Northgate Mall was originally a Castner-Knott, which Dillard's bought out in 1998. Big Lots originally opened as a Kroger, which left in the late 1980's or early 1990's for a then Wal-Mart anchored shopping center just down the street. The mall even has its own website, which gives a pretty good idea of where it stands today.

Here is the most active part of the mall. While there are a couple other stores/tenants, this area has the most. Not pictured on the left is the Foot Locker.

The middle entrance corridor is not faring so well. The Ponderosa (not pictured on the left) closed up awhile back. In the background is a jewelry store and a nice skylight area I failed to get a picture of.

When I assumed that the mall started as a strip, I was noting how the mall space is essentially a corner of what would have been front-facing strip mall stores that were enclosed into a mall. In fact, the mall entrances only open on one side, which is the side facing N Jackson St (US 41A). US 41A is the main route through the city. Similar to Three Star Mall, Northgate also has a couple anchors with no mall access including Big Lots (in an old Kroger) and JCPenney. No stores have rear entrances (except a JCPenney customer pick-up), and only the Dillard's had a side entrance. Part of this design is the very narrow strip of land it is built on. On the entire length of the rear is NW Atlantic St, a street that is paralleled by railroad tracks and prevents any expansion or general public entrances on the backside.

This end was hurt by the closure of Goody's at the beginning of the year. The Goody's was all that stood in the way of JCPenney having direct access to the mall.

The sole remaining tenant on the south entrance corridor is the military recruiting office. I imagine it is extremely popular with the local youth trying to escape this town.

Overall, Northgate is truly a community mall, and it is fairly obvious that the owners take its success very seriously. The mall on the inside has been completely renovated very recently, and the main mall entrance has been entirely upgraded. The new main (middle) entrance is actually quite elegant, but the other two entrances have not been changed. I was actually pleased to find that the mall had retained a few A class tenants despite it being far from a traditional shopping mall. While this mall is not nearly as appealing as Three Star Mall, it still is a decent shopping center in desperate need of modification for continued success.

The sign remains on the Ponderosa Steakhouse. It is not certain when it closed.

Inside Ponderosa, it looks like they just closed for the evening one day then never opened back up again.

Dillard's and Goody's leaving have left the enclosed mall portion in a very vulnerable state, and if the management fails to handle this crisis properly the mall will die quickly, either forcing a costly redevelopment or leaving a blight on the city. Obviously, the property presents challenges to any proper expansion, but the city is not large enough to support a mall much bigger in the first place. While it might seem best to just convert it into a strip mall, I do not feel this is necessary.

Looking back at the Castner-Knott/Dillard's entrance. The entrance to the right opened to the Juniors section, and the mall is currently leasing that separate from any future department store use.

Looking out of the north entrance from Dillard's/Castner-Knott.

The best course of action for the mall owners is to find a department store more suitable for the market. Dillard's is far too upscale for a small town, and the fact it lasted over 10 years in that location is remarkable. Perhaps Castner-Knott was also as upscale, but I'm sure as an outpost store it probably did not carry the higher end lines of the Nashville stores. Dillard's is not as expert about adjusting to their market, but previous owners Mercantile Stores were and today Belk is. Belk would actually be an excellent fit at this location as they gear their stores just for the market. Kohl's and Sears might also do well at this store. The store has the same basic design as most Kohl's, and Sears there would make a perfect discount/department store hybrid since it is one level and large.

Outside the north entrance, pictured above.

The main mall entrance is quite elaborate, and it definitely proves that the owners actually care about the success of the mall. The former Ponderosa is just inside on the left.

Goody's, on the other hand should NOT be replaced. This is actually an opportunity for the mall's owners to expand the mall by cutting through the empty store and cutting a new mall entrance for JCPenney. By doing this, they would also allow more spaces for small or mid-sized stores, which would make the mall more of a draw. In addition, they would connect another major anchor to the mall, which would draw more traffic into the mall. A large tenant that needed both inside and outside entrances, such as a restaurant, bookstore or drugstore could use part of the space up to the Goody's outside entrance and also have a mall entrance. A Books-A-Million actually would be ideal at this location. A better restaurant is also desperately needed to fill the void left by Ponderosa such as an Applebee's, Ruby Tuesday or a popular regional chain. The mall should study more successful small malls to make this work, because it would not take a large number of stores to fill the voids.

The sign on the highway, however is a bit dull. Note the Western Sizzlin in the background.

The Big Lots, on the other hand, is not an asset for the mall and it makes the mall look more dead. While I'm sure it does good business, it is quite unsightly in the old Kroger space and it hems in the JCPenney so that it has no side entrance unlike the old Dillard's. With that, either JCPenney could expand into the store, renovating the front or the store should be torn down. Big Lots could move nearby in one of likely several vacant stores in other shopping centers. I believe that if they lured in a Belk or Kohl's, cut access for Penney's, attracted a bookstore in part of the old Goody's and made the Penney's stand out more, the mall would be more successful than before. In contrast, if they do nothing and leave two vacant anchors, the center will likely fold within 2-3 years.

The rest of the mall is truly just a strip mall. The JCPenney here as noted before is not connected to the mall, and Big Lots in a long-closed Kroger just sits on the end like an exception. Kroger really seems to have liked community malls in the 70's.

Now for the exterior front entrances of former Dillard's/Castner-Knott. Dillard's wasn't right for the town, but I'm sure a Belk or Sears would do fine here.

Dillard's also had a side entrance, but no rear entrance. JCPenney could use one of these here, too, but it is not possible without modification.

In all, Northgate Mall is no Cool Springs Galleria, but it is a nice little mall. In addition to the suggestions above, I also think this mall should be renamed Tullahoma Mall, Tullahoma Station Mall or Jackson Station Mall in lieu of vague Northgate Mall. The name is confusing since there is also a Northgate Mall in Chattanooga less than 100 miles away. It would be easier to market a mall with a distinct name than one with a name like many other malls nationwide. While it will never compete with big city malls, it caters to a fairly large market covering four cities including Shelbyville, Winchester and Manchester in addition to Tullahoma. In all, I thought this unique mall just needs some love and I hope others can see the potential before it's too late. Of course, even if it dies it has done quite well as a successful mall for over 30 years.

My own redevelopment idea as described above. This drawing also throws in a potential expansion idea.

[1] Coming of Malls Altered City’s Shopping Habits.


  1. Mercantile, a chain whose stores were about a half-notch or so less upscale than Dillard. They were the lower priced rival to Dillard (and the classier Cain-Sloan before it became Dilliard) in Nashville. Based on that, it would seem like a Kohl's like store or a Belk would work in Tullahoma.

    There was a brief boomlet of malls that were basically strip malls with air conditioning and enclosures during the early 70s. They probably were more expensive to operate w/o necessarily generating more income. Developers started building large strips, and not always as neighbors to regional malls.

  2. Tullahoma seems to thrive because it's a good-sized town out in an area not well served by an interstate. Winchester, Tullahoma, and Shelbyville are each "one town away" from I-24, with Tullahoma in the middle of the three. Tullahoma has a K-Mart where Shelbyville lost theirs. All three towns have a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and so does nearby Manchester. In Georgia, Rome seems to be in a similar situation, being the shopping destination but not on an interstate.

    As for a restaurant in the mall, Tullahoma already has an Applebees and Ruby Tuesday which are stand-alone on 41A, so it would likely be difficult to get a restaurant of that caliber to move into the mall, especially since those types of restaurants seem to be vacating their mall locations. Many malls, even successful ones, have lost all of their sit-down restaurants. The Ruby Tuesday in Gadsden, AL at Gadsden Mall closed not too long ago despite being crowded on weekend nights.

    American Cafe closing most of their locations in January 2007 hurt a lot of malls, and Ruby Tuesday and Applebees don't seem interested in mall locations.

    I've always found Tullahoma interesting. Up until the radio station "Power 93" there was bought in early 1991 or late 1990 by the guy who owned WZYP here in Huntsville and converted to a country station, that Tullahoma station was one of the two Top 40 stations serving Huntsville, back when Top 40 was a popular radio format.

  3. It always seemed odd that the mall was named Northgate, as the name would have been heavily associated with Chattanooga, even in this area of Tennessee.

    Castner-Knott choosing Tullahoma over Murfreesboro and Columbia for a branch was always an odd choice. The store was more Belk-like than the Nashville area stores, and I suspect the same was true of the Decatur,AL and Florence, AL locations as well.

    Alas, Columbia has a small mall, Columbia Mall, located on the southside of Columbia and anchored by Sears, JCPenney and Peebles.
    It's owned by the same HullStoreyGibson that owns LaGrange Mall and feels very similar.

    Northgate comes across as a blend of McMinnville's ThreeStar Mall with Colombia Mall.

    Tennessee seems to be a haven for small malls, some long gone or repurposed-Cleveland Mall and Village Mall, dying like Cookeville Mall, and in a murky state of healthy and dying like Northgate. Unfortunately few seem to be truly thriving.

  4. Great picture of the mall in Tullahoma. Youre right, its no Cool Springs Mall! I live here in Williamson County TN and take it for granted since its right there. I love looking at retail of yesteryear so therefore Im really enjoying your site! Thanks!


  5. JCPenney is where the T G & Y was. T G & Y may have taken up the Goody's space as well.

    Also, the Ponderosa (née Bonanza) didn't close too long ago; I'd say around 2006 or 2007. I've actually never heard of a Bonanza in a mall before, and the only mall based Ponderosas that I know of seem to be former York Steakhouses (e.g. Orchards Mall, Benton Harbor).

  6. You failed to mention that there was a Radio Shack in the mall.

    I worked there my Senior year in High School, several years afterward while at Motlow.

    At that time 1980's, the mall was very alive and vibrant. The parking lot was overflowing, and traffic was a problem. There was not an empty space in the mall. They even had tenants with temp stores in the main corridors.

    Christmas was a madhouse.... so many people, so much activity. The Ponderosa you mention was standing room only.... you could not get in.

    It is sad to see what has happened, and can only blame it on the internet (ebay, etc) and the new shopping in Murfreesboro. OH.... I forgot the "Fun Tunnel" a place teens would hang out to play the latest video games!

    Oh well.... Northgate mall is a ghost town... no different than those of the ole west.... better things came along to replace it. Funny.... I remember when they built the mall, all the ole merchants said it would kill downtown. What goes around comes around.

    1. Oh man that brings back memories. The fun tunnel, oh and there was a kB toys at one time.

  7. I like your suggestions, but unfortunantely Goody's is reopening a lot of their small town stores. I think the mall and JCPenney need to add on a second level. The corridor could continue above Goody's into the JCPenney. Also, a parking garage needs to be added

  8. I like everyone's ideas.

  9. A Chick-fil-A would do well.

  10. Oh, JT, I have an idea for a restaurant in the Ponderosa, Tullahoma does not have an Ihop, and people here LOVE new restaurants. What do you think?

  11. Since this article was wriiten Rue 21 has moved into the Ponderosa space and Burkes has moved into the Goodys space..there are still many empty spaces. The recruiters officed have moved out, the Dillards space is still empty....

  12. It now has a rue 21

  13. What really made the mall exciting and brought most of the customers there was the Fun Tunnel – it was fun and the kids were in the fun tunnel when parents shopped, got their hair done and more !

    Many people come to the fun tunnel to have fun - not to shop at the mall !!
    Once the Fun Tunnel moved out of Northgate & was placed beside the bowling Ally the business slowly started to slow down and decrease, then Radio Shack moved out of the mall even less people came… !

    Of course the old Krystals Restaurant in the parking lot in front of Kroger/Big Lots was torn down and moved !
    Many people hung around and ate at Krystals year-round!

    The main use of the Northgate Mall was cruising around the mall parking lot down North Jackson Street, turn right onto West Lincoln Street into Sonic on right go around and back the same way back and forth to and from the mall & Sonic !

    I am very familiar with the mall past from 1978 up to today as a home town resident and miss alot of the hometown stores and memories !

  14. There was a toy store that was accross form Ponderosa and owned by a ederly couple that closed shortly after his wife died. I think it was a KB toys and I used go in there in every Christmas and pick out the things that I wanted. They had a layaway and free gift wrapping. I loved to go and play with toys on display. It was nice local store that you don't see anymore. Not mention, playing in the Fun Tunnel. It so sad that the mall is dying on its feet. The only thing that is keeping open Bath and Body Works, Claires, and Burkes. I did find out that the reason why so many stores moved out because the rent is so high for the space.

  15. Former Tullahoma ResidentMay 20, 2013 at 12:22 PM

    I have a lot of great memories of this mall. We lived in a small town that was equally distant from Tullahoma and Huntsville, AL, and the 80s being what they were Mall fever meant I spent a lot of time at these malls. It seemed my parents would just alternate which way they wanted to go.

    Fun Tunnel in the early 80s was AMAZING. Not just from a "hey, arcade games are great!!" perspective, but whoever owned that arcade really knew their stuff. When arcades were hot, I could tell you were twenty or so were within a sixty-mile radius, but literally Fun Tunnel was the one place you could find the coolest games right alongside the trippy or experimental ones.

    I can remember people gathered around Star Trek Arcade, and can definitely remember during the laserdisc craze they had obscure stuff like Thayer's Quest--the only time I ever saw an arcade cabinet for that game was in Fun Tunnel.

    Fun Tunnel used to be in that sort of bent section of the wall past Ponderosa. I can remember eating at the Ponderosa with my parents, and I'd be literally jumping out of my skin to finish the meal so I could go next door to Fun Tunnel. It was so exciting!

    Sometime in the late 80s/early 90s they moved across to the frontmost storefront right in the same area.

    They had a real boom in the 92-94 timeframe where fighting games became hot and arcades were once again booming. I can remember having my first real job and I'd go to Fun Tunnel, plop $5 in the change machine and prepare to play games like Mortal Kombat (I and II), Street Fighter of every flavor, Samurai Showdown, World Heroes, Virtua was a really fun time and I could spend hours in there (and did!) They'd stay open until later on weekends and it was generally pretty crowded in there.

    I moved away not long after that, but came back a few years later, eager to see the old Fun Tunnel. It was still there, but it was very sad--no one inside, all the games were older ones or sit-down gimmicky stuff. I came back again a year or two later and it had gone completely. I had no idea it had moved before closing, but she's certainly gone now.

    I'll post more memories of this mall, but Fun Tunnel was by far the strongest pull I had to that mall, both as a child and a teenager.

  16. Former Tullahoma ResidentMay 20, 2013 at 12:40 PM

    Part II of the memories...

    A few random tidbits--

    *The shuttered off section right beside that picture of Goody's was a bookstore. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it, but I can remember going in there to buy video game books and magazines. As a kid I thought it was a big bookstore but of course it is absolutely dwarfed by the mega bookstores that are common today (or are they? They seem to be dying too, just like malls.) I can also remember that there was a small area right in front of the bookstore with a place to sit, and a couple of small kiddie rides and an arcade cabinet or two. Yes, not only did they have a big huge arcade chock full of games, but they were so awesome they spilled out into the mall proper, lol.

    * There was indeed a toy store to the right in the middle entrance, and it was a good one. I used to get a lot of my NES games there, they'd have them behind the counter in a glass case. Back then, Wal-Mart really only stocked video games at Christmastime (a crazy idea now, for certain!) but you could get games at KB year-round. I especially remember buying several Game Boy games there when that system came out, they had all the latest ones there.

    * Radio Shack was right up the middle there from the middle entrance. They had a pretty cool setup there with several demo computers and you could play all sorts of games on them--this was before demo kiosks were commonplace (the Atari had them, but not much had since then.) One time, as a kid I went in there and strongly remember playing Thexder...and accidentally knocking off the tape player for the game. The lady working there was *pissed* and told me "now was a good time to leave." I was a clumsy little brat and deserved to be shown the door because I was careless...but can you imagine that happening now? If a clerk now said that to someone's "precious little" who was tearing stuff up in the store, you'd better believe you'd have some snotty mother coming in threatening to have their job, call corporate, give me your manager, etc....thankfully we as kids used to be made of sterner stuff, eh?

    * The area right in front of Dillard's fascinated me as a kid. They had this access ramp for those with wheelchairs to the left side, but they also had all these awesome plants and greenery decorating that area. So naturally as a kid you'd run up and down the ramp, like you were running through the jungle or something. (Hey, clothes stores are boring when you're a kid, you make your own entertainment!)

    * Goody's was where my mom shopped the most, especially for back to school. It seemed like they were a great store for the middle-class moms on a budget. It was sad to see so many close, but as one of the commenters above mentioned, they seem to be on the comeback. In fact, they just bought out a former store and opened a Goody's in Fayetteville, TN of all places.

    * The comment above about how busy the mall in general was, and how bad it was to park--definitely accurate. That place was hopping all the time, and vendors were indeed set up in the hallways as well as every store there being filled. I bought my first girlfriend (and now my wife) a little gold bracelet from a vendor who was set up right in the front, near Ponderosa.

  17. Former Tullahoma ResidentMay 20, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    Part III (this is the last, I promise!)

    * Last but not least--the Ponderosa steakhouse was good! If you've ever eaten Quincy's or Ryan's it was very similar to those. I love cheese and I can remember as a kid they'd have these huge hunks of cheese up there and you'd cut or shave off your own portions. Naturally I'd try to get me some big honkin' cheese!


    To top off all this recap business, I should add that my wife and I were there a few months ago, and the mall has indeed come back to life, so it seems. There is a Rue 21, some sort of sporting apparel store, and even better--a little arcade area with air hockey and a few games! That was awesome to see. Several of the stores are now filled that were empty only a year or two previously. And there were other people in there and everything, heh! So this mall isn't dead yet--maybe it's having a nice revival. I hope it lasts!

  18. The bookstore was called Readmore Book-N-Card

  19. Former Tullahoma ResidentMarch 13, 2015 at 1:38 PM

    Just as a last update--this mall has for the time being almost 100% recovered. Only the old bookstore shop, recruitment offices, old music store space, and the former snack shop area are empty now. Amazing considering just how empty it was only a few years ago, as the pictures above will attest.

    Also? Dillard's was divided up and new large stores have taken up shop there. Now, all outward facing store fronts are occupied, including Burke's, Big Lots, and others.

    This is what happens when a mall owner gets serious about keeping a property viable and keeps seeking to entice new tenants, never giving up on the space. You hear that, owners of Madison Square Mall in Huntsville, AL? No? Yeah, I didn't think so.

  20. The old Dillard's junior section is now a miniature glow in the dark golf course with a full 18 hole course. It also has arcade games inside. It's not quite the fun tunnel but at least someone is trying. All the big malls now seem to have mini golf inside. Northgate now just needs a restaurant...desperately.

  21. It's starting to turn around, only the small recruiting stores are empty.

    Outside mall... Harbor Freight, Joann's Fabrics, PetSmart, JC Penny, Big Lots, Burkes, Radio Shack (closing due to corporate collapse), Aspen Dental

    Inside mall... Glow Time Minigolf, Claires, Bath and Bodyworks, CaliNails, Urban Republic, Woodard's Jewelry, The Book Shelf, Hibbett Sports, Rue21, Tullahoma Awards & Gifts, theres an Arcade and a guy selling Collectible Knives.

    There's also an eyebrow threading kiosk and talks of adding more.

    Rumors of expanding are out there. They own Cherokee Square next door and there are plans to connect the two shopping centers.

  22. Also, last year the local paper ran a story that led one to believe we will be getting a large grocery (Publix) store. I'm unsure if they will be adding it on to the "Dillard's" end or if it will be taking up the empty lot behind the bank. I do know that Aspen dental is moving across the street and supposedly the bank will also move to another location.

  23. Publix has been confirmed and preliminary construction has begun. The old Dillard's end is being demolished and added on to for Publix and an additional 6600 square feet of retail space.

    2 national restaurant chains and another big box store are rumored to be in talks for the mall property.

    Radio Shack is now closed due to corporate collapse.

  24. My Grandparents owned Custom Sound that later became The Sound Shop until the early 90's and when my brother and I were out of school for the summer we practically lived in the mall. The fun tunnel, readmore book and card, and the carousel were our favorite places to hang out.