Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bristol Mall: Bristol, VA

Covering a mall in Virginia is a first for me, but Bristol Mall is just barely in Virginia, so this counts mostly on a moral basis.  As part of the "Tri-Cities", which includes the Tennessee cities of Kingsport and Johnson City, the city of Bristol itself is divided across the two states.  Bristol Mall is also unmistakably similar to its Kingsport cousin, Fort Henry Mall.  Opened in 1978, Bristol Mall is relatively compact mall with two levels and the fourth mall to open in the Tri-Cities after Kingsport Mall, Miracle Mall (Mall at Johnson City) and Fort Henry Mall.  While the mall has seen better times, it still has three solid anchors and has lasted over 30 years.  It seems overall that the mall is in a market that may be indeed overmalled, so it has had some difficulty keeping the mall filled with stores.  In all, though, I think its the lack of retail as well as population in the immediate area that is why it faces a disadvantage, and I tend to wonder if the mall was built more on speculation than demand.

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.


  1. There seem to be a lot of malls where the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Most often, the anchors may be healthy, but not the inline stores. In some of these malls, the food court sustains itself with non-shopping lunch or breakfast patrons, who never venture into the fall. This seems to fit into that category. Some of these malls seem like candidates for de-malling into a mixed use or lifestyle-ish/big box format. Others may eventually lose some anchors as overall traffic declines.

  2. Great article, and the first mall on Sky City that we've both been to, although at different times. One correction, though. This mall never lost its Belk. The Bristol Mall store went from Parks Belk to Belk, never converting to Proffitt's.

    1. Proffitt's WAS actually in the mall. My brother was an employee of it while I was an employee of Rack Room Shoes. It was in 2001.

  3. Snap, forgot about the Charlotte malls. We don't have much overlap, though.

  4. What has happened in the Tri-cities is all three are in competition to have the same chains as each other. The region has a similar population to Chattanooga which has 2 thriving malls-Hamilton Place and Northgate, with one semi-repurposed but dying mall-Eastgate. Here there are 3 malls in each of the core cities, and one successfully repurposed mall to lifestyle center in Kingsport. Even duplication of the big box retailers results in cannibalization.

    As a note, Bristol, VA appears to be thriving more than Bristol, TN, where the only growth of note since the 90's has occurred near Bristol Speedway, along US 11E/US 19 which also connects to Johnson City and Elizabethton.

    Kingsport and Sullivan County have had a relatively stagnant population since the 1980's. The majority of population growth has occurred in Johnson City and surrounding Washington County. The grounds for JC's growth were laid years ago, with less reliance on industry than Kingsport and being home to the East Tenn State U campus. It didn't hurt that Johnson City was connected to more population surrounding the region than either Bristol or Kingsport with the other 2 and Elizabethton and Greeneville being close by. US 11E carried more traffic prior to the opening of I-81 than US 11W as a result of going through the more populated areas between Knoxville and the Tri-cities. With the completion of I-26, despite slightly more distance from the I-81/I-26 junction than Kingsport, Johnson City became more interstate accessible.

    Bristol Mall itself is easily accessible from I-81 just as the Mall at Johnson City is close to I-26, but that location doesn't seem to have been a boon long term. Fort Henry Mall/Kingsport Town Center is in better shape despite being the hardest to find if you're from out of town, but in reality the two malls aren't very far apart.

    Both Kingsport and Johnson City were homes to early Super Kmarts, while Bristol maintains a standard Big Kmart on the Tennessee side of State Street still exuding its 1970's origins.

  5. Wow it looked like you had the whole mall to yourself. Hardly anyone there that day?

  6. The problem with the Bristol mall is the local people, The majority do not work, they come to the mall to have somewhere to hang out and complain about even competitive prices.
    then say they got it at Walmart,or I can get it on line,
    Even the other merchants do not do business in the mall, and cannot tell you what merchandise other stores in the mall carry.
    It is really sad we live in an age where people do not care about there local economy and would rather send their money elsewhere.
    The mall management does what they can when they can, DO NOT blame them blame the locals who prefer to send there money elsewhere to make a purchase!
    Why would any store spend millions of dollars to renovate and open in a place where the locals refuse to spend there money?
    Put thew blame where it is due THE LOCALS !

  7. Bristol Mall is nice But there is only two place's to eat go to Johnson city mall you can shop and have many place's to eat and many more stores

  8. It was just announced that Belk's will be leaving the Bristol Mall to reopen in The Pinnacle development as a co-anchor with Bass Pro Shop in April, 2015. The store will have 132,000 square feet on two floors.

    This will leave two vacant spots and is a giant blow to an already struggling and bland mall. Who they can get to replace the two Belk's stores is anyone's guess. Macy's and Dillard's won't come to Johnson City, much less Bristol. Perhaps Kohl's would be interested in one spot, but certainly not both.

    1. That is probably a fatal blow for the mall. The mall is already struggling with high vacancies, and this will empty out this entire end of the mall. I expect that the result of this will be that the entire Belk side of the mall will close and be walled off with only the part between JCPenney and Sears remaining open. This will probably result in both of those closing as well, since they have other stores in the market, both chains are struggling and they will lose even more business in a dead mall. I expect Sears to close and reopen as a "hometown store" nearby and JCPenney will close with or without a replacement. Enjoy Bristol Mall while you can, because it looks like the one in Johnson City will be the last in the market in a few years.

  9. I noted in an earlier e-mail that Belk will be moving out of Bristol Mall in 2015. Penny's has just announced that they will be closing their Bristol store in May of this year. Given the rather pitiful state of this mall now, I just can't see it hanging on after these two department stores leave. Who in the world would they get to fill these spaces? There are no other department stores in the Tri-Cities area. If Macy's or Dillard's ever come to the area, Johnson City will get them. In my book, this mall is officially dying.

  10. JCPenney has announced this mall's JCP store is one of the 33 to be closed down in 2014.

  11. Sadly the JCPenny store will be closing the early part of 2014.

  12. JCPenney is now closing.

  13. With Belk moving out and JCPenney closing, it doesn't seem logical that Sears will stay open given that they are closing stores all over the country. I hate to see this happening to Bristol Mall. It was a great mall back in its heyday.

  14. Just a little update here. JCP has closed in the mall and Belk as stated earlier will be closing and moving to a new location at the currently being built Pinnacle project just down the road in Bristol, TN. This will leave Sears as the only anchor in the Bristol Mall and I've heard rumors that Sears will be closing down which honestly is likely true and that would leaving the mall with nothing.

    BTW, Piccadilly has closed and so has the Sprint store seen in one of your pictures. This mall is dead, it won't be around much longer at all now.

  15. In the 80's when Sperry Univac and Raytheon were running and employed hundreds with good paying jobs, the mall was full of shops and people. Since the local governments have chosen to not court industry for the "locals" to have good jobs, the locals cannot afford to shop at high end stores.
    With three major shopping centers opening along I-81, the mall cannot survive without a major overhaul of the building and management.
    As for Proffits never being at the mall, it was actually located in the current men's side of Belk. They were only there for a few years, but they were there.
    The theater was the only Bristol theater around before Tinseltown at exit seven, but was so run down that people started going to Blountville, Abingdon and Johnson City.
    It is truly sad to see it withering on the vine, but without some major changes it will soon be vagrant central.

  16. The Piccadilly space is now a culinary arts school/restaurant.

    1. You have to wait for approval for a comment????

    2. The Culinary school has now closed, Belk also just closed with the grand opening of Belk at the Pinnacle March 11th, 2015.

  17. The down hill climb of our mall is The Mall Manager. Then ten years or so she has been in charge, has been a spiral if stores closing. The Mall Management needs to be ran as it was years ago, with sending out memos of upcoming events. Store hours to its merchants. Try to get stores to fill empty spaces. I shop there and support it. Hopefully they will replace the Manager with a more merchant friendly attitude that has a Business Manager degree, or someone more agrees I've and eager to to do their job. Instead of hiding in an office.

  18. It has just been announced that the Bristol Mall's ownership is in default of its debt payments, and the mall will be sold at auction August 18, 2015. According to the article I read, more than half of the mall's available space is currently vacant. The mall last sold, the article said, for $18.3 million in 2006. The owner before that paid $25 million in 1999. I bet it doesn't fetch anywhere near either of those numbers when it is auctioned off. Bristol Mall wasn't that great a mall in its heyday, but it's sad how it's gone downhill. The Pinnacle development is getting all the business now, although it doesn't offer anything (except Bass Pro Shop, which is definitely more Bristol's speed than the other Tri-Cities) that Johnson City hasn't had for some time. Even the new Belk store doesn't carry many brands that the Johnson City location does.

  19. Sears has just announced that one of the many stores it's closing is in the Bristol Mall. This mall has already lost Penney's and Belk, and Sears was its last remaining anchor. This mall is going down the tubes fast.

  20. Gamestop left the mall. There are now only four places open for business, since Sears is leaving at the end of the month.
    It's really sad that Bristol and incompetent owners let this mall struggle so long.
    Doubly so since the Pinnacle doesn't really offer anything to the area and is a nightmare to navigate in bad weather.
    I'd rather have seen an expanded, updated mall than that mess.

  21. Hi, just letting you know there was most definitely a Proffit's in this mall during the 90's. I had an aunt who worked there. The spot where Proffits was later became a part of Belk and before it was Proffit's, I believe it was called Hess'.

  22. This entire thing is just sad. Article & comments. There is, what, five stores on the upper level left as of 3/24/17? Okay, it's more depressing than sad.

  23. I know it's a few years late, but there was a Proffitt's. It occupied the space that was Miller's, then Hess's. It replaced Hess's and existed at the same time as Belk. My mom worked at Hess's and Proffitt's.

  24. Millers changed to Hess then in the late 80s early 90s became Proffits. It stayed Proffits till it changed to belk home and men's after 2006

  25. The loose businesses cause they raise the rent. Piccadily isnt there- the restaurant/school that used to be on Piedmont avenue is there now.
    Most of the stores that left either have their own place, in a strip mall like at Ollies, The Pinnacle or Cabelas site.

  26. Only one store is left in this mall.