When it opened in 1980 it was like nothing else in southwest metro Atlanta. But the once-bustling Shannon Mall of old — a must destination for shoppers in Fayette, Coweta and Fulton counties in the 1980s and 1990s — is now a skeleton of its former self, a locked and nearly vacant darkened mall, shuttered food court and acres of empty parking spaces, emblematic of recession-fatigued 2010.
Renamed Union Station Mall after being purchased by Atlanta real estate developer Lee Najjar, Union Station closed its doors last month with only the Sears and Macy’s anchor stores remaining open. Today the question remains, is Union Station Mall down or out?
One of Shannon Mall’s first tenants when it opened in 1980 was Louis Smith, who served as manager of Kay Jewelers. Smith was Kay’s first black store manager in the Southeast. After he left Kay, Smith remained at Shannon Mall, subsequently opening Regal Jewelers along with his wife Shirley. The two moved their business to Fayetteville in November.
Smith said that, when it opened, Shannon Mall was the premier shopping area in southwest metro Atlanta.
“There was lots of media coverage at the opening. Kay had a scavenger hunt with one of the Atlanta radio stations. And there were people there from everywhere,” Smith explained. “Shannon had Rich’s, Davison’s and Sears and some of the nicest stores you could find. It was the biggest mall in the area. And at Christmas the parking lot wouldn’t hold all the cars. Shannon Mall was the place to go.”
Smith said the mall experienced a slight decline after 1990 when a new management company came in and started spending less on advertising. It was around that time that some of the anchor stores began cutting back on inventory, Smith added.
By 2000, “Things were down quite a bit. And by 2005, Lee (Najjar) wanted to turn it into something like (Atlanta’s redeveloped) Atlantic Station (commercial and residential area),” Smith remembered. “Camp Creek Marketplace [to the north] got big and that was like the nail in the coffin. A number of businesses left the mall and went to Camp Creek.”
What might be the final blow came in late October when all the businesses except the two anchor tenants, Macy’s and Sears, were locked out of the mall after the electricity was turned off.
A Nov. 24 press release on the mall closing issued by Steve Rapson, city manager in Union City, said, “Grubb & Ellis Management Service notified city officials today of their decision to close Union Station Mall. Macy’s and Sears are stand-alone stores and will remain open.” Rapson is a former Peachtree City councilman.
Rapson noted that the two anchors have no intention of leaving Union Station and that other large companies are looking at the mall as a potential retail site.
Rapson last week confirmed that the mall owed approximately $40,000 in past due water bills and property taxes totaling approximately $250,000.
That said, Rapson said he was confident that another firm will come in and make a go of Union Station. He said city officials are optimistic that the vacancy will not be long-lived, citing the mall’s prime location for redevelopment and its close proximity to I-85 and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
“We are committed to working with mall management to ensure that the (current) closing process is as smooth as possible,” Rapson said. “The city will increase police presence, code enforcement and fire inspections to ensure that the building remains safe.”
A late October letter from Union City Mayor Ralph Moore to the Union Station tenants pertaining to the closing said, “Often there is much uncertainty during this economic climate and Union City is not exempt. One thing that is consistent within our community is that we have always come together and work through rough times. The challenging times at Union Station Mall can have a chilling effect on how we view the future of our businesses. That is why Union City government will extend an open invitation to sit and discuss all options we think are available to our business community.”
“The mall has a rich history in Union City, and we will continue to tell the story of what it means to the people of this region,” Moore said in a recent press release.
It is clear that Union City officials are hoping that Union Station is down but not out. Yet for all Shannon Mall/Union Station once was, there is a stark difference 30 years later.
“It was everything then that it is not today,” Louis Smith said sadly.
Regal Jewelers and its owners Shirley and Louis Smith have relocated their business in Fayetteville at Teton Village on South Glynn Street. The couple had operated their business at Shannon Mall/Union Station since 1994.
Shirley and Louis began to see a disturbing trend and a transition at Union Station Mall that became accentuated in 2009. The trend and what they saw as a result caused them to relocate closer to many of their customers in Fayetteville.
“(Union Station) was not maintained. It was unlit, unkept and unsafe. We said if they were not going to fix things like the lights and air conditioning then we were not going to stay,” Louis said.
Describing conditions for shoppers and tenants at the mall, Louis said the management company, presumably hired by mall owner Lee Najjar, that took over in mid-2009 would not keep the mall in satisfactory condition.
The jeweler cited examples such as inadequate lighting and maintenance, the air conditioning system not functioning in the food court area, a dark parking lot, insufficient hygiene items in the women’s restroom, occasions where security was not in the premises and, beginning in March and running through August, the removal of bank ATM machines.
The crowning blow came on Oct. 27 when all the lights in the mall were shut off for non-payment of the electric bill. By that time Regal Jewelers was already working on establishing the new location in Fayetteville and Louis and Shirley had to move their inventory using portable lanterns inside a dark mall.
Of the mall’s many former tenants, Louis said only about 20 remained when the lights went out on Oct. 27.
Today, with the exception of the cars parked outside the remaining anchors, Sears and Macy’s, the parking lot at Union Station Mall resembles an asphalt moonscape.
Whether Union Station will find a new buyer and thrive once again or whether it will lose its two remaining stores and pass completely into history is a story that is not yet written.