Once one of the most popular places to shop in all of Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and far beyond, University Mall, or what’s left of it, lies in rubble and debris facing Davis Highway. Its location, always its main asset, has little going for it now that the mall is dead.
Its location only five minutes from the University of West Florida is how it got its name. Even closer are the Medical Center Clinic West Florida Hospital, and the mega-church Olive Baptist.
Only the three anchor stores remain from one end to the other with little or nothing between them. The real estate, owned by Simon Properties of Indianapolis has been allowed to deteriorate slowly, always with promises in the outing that it would eventually be restored to its former glory. Now it’s vast parking acreage is unkept, rife with grass and weeds, and anyone with any imagination might liken it to a western ghost town.
In its place stand the three anchor stores: Sears, J.C Penny, and Belks with no connecting passage between each of them. Each store has its own entrances, and only elevated banks serve to unite them.
Built in 1974, it was for a long while the” in” place to shop, handy for Santa Rosa shoppers and easily accessed from Interstate 10. It was even suggested that people from as far away as Mobile came to take advantage of its location and proliferation of stores. Folks who might have gone to Mobile from Southwest Alabama often chose the more convenient location.
Hurricane Ivan in 2004 dealt University Mall a devastating blow from which it never recovered. From that date forward the Mall lapsed into complete disrepair. It was speculated that Simon’s reluctance to mend or repair the damage was what drove most of the tenants out. According to Russ Sheppard, a citizen who has been familiar with the mall for many years, “The newspapers won’t say it, but everybody here (in Escambia County) is certain that the planned ‘life-center’ renovations will not happen anytime soon, especially with the current state of the economy.”
It was three years ago in 2009 that Simon Properties indicated that its plan was to construct a “life-style ” center from the “ashes” of the Mall. That would consist of open-air shopping and dining complexes. Thanks to the economy, those plans were never implemented.
A Simon Properties spokesperson told the Press Gazette on Nov. 13 that in the very near future the company would announce some form of construction activity but that it was premature to tell at the present time. An anticipated date of December 10, 2012 is in the outing for announcement of those plans.
An interesting fact that may be obscured is that Belk, in the center of the three department stores, is the only anchor change since the mall opened in June o 1974. The original anchor, McRae’s. was bought by Belk’s in 2006.
Another observation by Tony Richards: “Thanks to changing shopping habits, immense disruptive road constuction on Davis Highway in front of the mall, along with new Walmarts and other developments in the areas that folks used to have to drive from to shop, University Mall…” all contributed to the demise of University Mall.
He said that a few years ago there was a shooting in front of Darryl’s, a restaurant adjacent to the mall. Some say it killed their business, as well as Bennigans’, anther restaurant directly next door. Both businesses were closed shortly after that.
Will there ever be a revival of University Mall? There’s not much evidence that it will.