Orchards Mall, Benton Harbor, MI: From Retail Powerhouse to Near-Empty Facility

The Inception and Early Years

Nestled near Benton Harbor, Michigan, the Orchards Mall has been a significant landmark since its inception. The mall’s story began in 1974 when the Meyer C. Weiner Company proposed the idea of a shopping mall in Benton Harbor.

This proposal was initially for a mall named Pipestone Mall. However, Westcor acquired the land in 1976, and the mall was renamed Orchards Mall.

The grand opening of the Orchards Mall on October 24, 1979, marked a significant milestone in the retail history of Benton Harbor. The mall was anchored by two major retail giants, Sears and JCPenney.

These stores were not just retail outlets but the pillars supporting the mall’s bustling retail atmosphere. The 1990s saw the addition of another anchor store, Elder-Beerman. This addition further solidified the mall’s status as a retail powerhouse in Benton Harbor.

The Golden Era

The Orchards Mall enjoyed a period of prosperity and growth that spanned several years. This era was characterized by adding significant tenants such as Walgreens and York Steak House.

These additions diversified the mall’s retail offerings, making it a one-stop shopping destination for the residents of Benton Harbor and beyond.

The area surrounding the mall also saw significant development. Meijer, a supercenter chain, opened its doors outside the mall on June 24, 1980. This was followed by the addition of Lowe’s Home Improvement in November 1994. These developments further enhanced the mall’s appeal, drawing in more visitors.

In 1999, the mall’s management was taken over by General Growth Properties. This change in direction ushered in a new era of expansion and growth.

The mall saw the addition of new stores, including Bath & Body Works, and the remodeling of existing ones. The mall was a vibrant, bustling hub of activity, a testament to the thriving retail industry of the time.

The Onset of Decline

However, the turn of the century brought with it signs of decline. Sears, one of the original anchor stores, closed its doors in 2009. This closure began a series of unfortunate events leading to the mall’s decline.

Elder-Beerman, another anchor store, was converted to Carson’s in 2011. This change marked another significant shift in the mall’s retail landscape.

Despite a brief return of Sears in a smaller format in 2012, the store closed again in 2017. This closure left a significant void in the mall’s retail offerings.

The following year, Carson’s announced its closure, leaving another gaping hole in the mall’s retail landscape. The final blow came in 2019 with the closure of JCPenney. This closure left the mall without its original anchor stores, marking the end of an era.

The Current State: A Shadow of Its Former Self

Fast forward to December 2022, and the Orchards Mall in Benton Harbor, Michigan, was a shadow of its former self.

Only three businesses remained: a discount furniture store, a mattress store, and a US Postal Service branch. The mall was plagued by vacant storefronts, some of which had been empty for over a decade.

The mall also faced physical challenges. A burst water main in late December 2022 caused significant damage, forcing the mall to close for a week. As tenants vacated the mall, gulls became a bother, adding to the mall’s problems.

As of 2023, the Orchards Mall is a stark reminder of the changing retail landscape. The once vibrant mall had three main spaces for anchor tenants and is now a shell of its former self, with long-vacant areas and an uncertain future.

The ambitious plans once envisioned for the mall have not come to fruition. The space once occupied by JCPenney, which was planned to be transformed into 116 luxury apartments, remains vacant. The old Penney’s store, set to become a hotel, still stands empty.

The space once home to Sears, earmarked for a sports center, has yet to see any transformation. The area that once housed Carson Pirie Scott, planned to be an indoor, climate-controlled storage rental facility, is still awaiting its new avatar.

The Future of Orchards Mall

As of 2023, there are no plans to demolish the building. In April 2023, a meeting occurred between the mall’s owner and local officials, including Benton Charter Township Supervisor.

The owner presented a revitalization plan, which included converting part of the commercially-zoned mall area into residential use. However, this plan was deemed unworkable by Supervisor Yates, who insisted that the site should remain commercial.

A Tale of Uncertainty

Over the years, the mall has faced several issues, including a lack of property upkeep, a water primary breaking and damaging business inventory, unpaid property taxes, and, most recently, thousands of nesting gulls. A gull remediation project is underway, but the issue has not diminished.

The transformation of the Orchards Mall, or rather the lack of it, reflects the broader shifts in the retail industry. The mall’s journey from a retail powerhouse to a near-empty facility is a stark reminder of the challenges brick-and-mortar retail face in changing consumer behavior and the rise of e-commerce.

As the Orchards Mall stands today, it serves as a symbol of the past, a stark contrast to its bustling days. Its future remains uncertain, a testament to the challenges and unpredictability of the retail landscape.

Comments: 2
  1. Avatar of Loida Medina
    Loida Medina

    It is sad that the Mall has turned out to be a skeleton of of the past. However, if you have been observing, malls like this which were turned into sports are thriving. How about turning it into a Pickleball Paradise . This can be used for sports for Benton Harbor youths, community Pickleball and later add eateries and other indoor sports. Pickleball is on the rise with inexpensive items to get the play started. I am sure there are people who will be willing to teach these young ones and even older people how to play. This place will burst into life again.

    1. Avatar of Spencer Walsh
      Spencer Walsh (author)

      Thank you for your insightful comment about Orchards Mall. Given the sport’s rising popularity, the idea of turning it into a Pickleball Paradise is timely. Repurposing it into a sports facility could bring new life into the space.

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