Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Charles Owens

May 16, 2012

A tale of two parking garages, one flea market and a ‘Mountain Mall’

A lot of folks have been wondering out loud as of late about what the future holds for the two Bluefields. As many of our readers know, things have been kind of tough in recent months for the two Bluefields — and perhaps more so for the city of Bluefield than the town of Bluefield, Va.

In fact, I would go as far as to say that things really haven’t been the same since the Great Recession took root back in 2007. Before the financial storm, all of the shopping centers on the Virginia side were essentially full, and there were plans for a new, large-scale shopping, housing and medical complex to be developed along U.S. Route 460.

I was the writer responsible for the front-page story that touted the gigantic development. I know a lot of people got excited about it, and were looking forward to the large-scale shopping complex planned in the Leatherwood section of Bluefield, Va. I, too, was among those who were excited. I was looking forward to having a Target, Home Depot, Circuit City, Red Lobster and more in Bluefield, Va. But little did we realize at the time that the rug was about to pulled out from underneath us. The Great Recession was looming. Dark days were approaching.

The large-scale shopping center never materialized, and several other stores and shops were forced to close in the wake of the economic downturn. Unlike the infamous “Mountain Mall,” which infuriated so many of us who were gullible enough to fall for what turned out to be a test on the effectiveness of radio advertising back in the early 1980s, the shopping center project in Bluefield, Va., was real. It was supposed to happen. Maybe it will still one day be developed. We can certainly hope so.

The “Mountain Mall,” by comparison, was a clever, yet equally cruel, hoax that fooled more than its fair share of folks.

Looking back — I’m ashamed to admit that I fell for it. I actually believed — for a brief period of time anyhow — that someone was really going to build an underground mall in the Bluefield area. When the subsequent radio ads aired talking about the ground shifting, we all realized something was amiss.

While the two Bluefields fell victim to the financial storm that was the Great Recession, it is important to note that the Princeton area did a pretty good job of weathering the economic downturn. The proximity of the Interstate 77 corridor had a lot to do with it, as it continues to do so today. But the story remains largely the same. Princeton is still growing. Bluefield is still struggling. And Bluefield, Va., is finally starting to grow again.

In terms of Virginia’s Tallest Town, I’ve been able to watch as the long-awaited Taco Bell has taken shape over the past couple of months on my way to and home from work each day.

The biggest debate at the moment in the neighboring city of Bluefield is where to move the flea market, and which parking garage is coming down first. We are calling it a tale of two parking garages and one flea market. The Bluefield Board of Directors are apparently all in agreement now that both parking garages should come down, but no one seems to know when the flea market will be moved, and where to.

I know some folks in the area have mixed feelings about the flea market, but the simple fact of the matter is the weekly event draws a large crowd to Bluefield each and every Saturday. Does the city really want to lose this foot traffic? Any disruption in the flea market — if only for a couple of weeks — could very well mark the end of this long-standing tradition. The vendors — and those who come to the city to shop at the flea market and eat at local restaurants each Saturday — will simply go elsewhere if there isn’t a flea market in Bluefield. And once they leave, getting them back could be very difficult. That’s something city officials should be thinking about.

And of course the wait continues to see what will happen with the old Kroger building on Cumberland Road. I’ll admit the once vibrant shopping center is now somewhat lacking without a grocery store. And we still don’t know for sure if Bluefield’s Mail Processing and Distribution Center will be closed, or if it will get a final hour reprieve like the 27 smaller, rural post offices. At the moment, we are simply being told that those mail processing and distribution centers previously targeted for closure will still most likely close. So until we hear to the contrary, we have to assume that Bluefield’s Mail Processing and Distribution Center will still be closed. But we are now being told that a clarification on the mail processing centers could come as early as Thursday.

So it goes without saying that we could certainly use a little bit more good news — and specifically of the new economic development type — for the two Bluefields. A new shopping center would certainly be idea. A Mountain Mall, probably not so.

Charles Owens is the Daily Telegraph’s assistant managing editor. Contact him at cowens@bdtonline.com.

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