By Mike Steely
I took my wife and grandson to East Towne Mall recently, just after the owners announced it was closing at the end of January. Belk, the only big-box store left there, had announced it is closing this month and that store was packed with shoppers taking advantage of 85% off most items.
As my wife went into Belk my grandson and I walked into the mall full of old memories. My wife had worked there for almost four years and the store where she was a clerk left the mall years ago. Over the past few years the anchor stores on each end closed, Sears being the last to give up and leave.
East Towne, or Knoxville Center, Mall had been our neighborhood place to shop. It was for most of East and North Knoxville and the nearby communities of Morristown, Jefferson City, and much of Sevier County. In its heyday in the 1980s and 90’, it was a place to dine, shop, and, most of all, socialize.
For years the mall walkers went there for their morning strolls. A few mall walkers passed us or stopped to chat on our final visit there. They were wondering where they could go to walk in safety and under shelter. They lamented the closing of the grand old mall.
Store after store sit empty now. A few have displays left behind and one empty fashion shop has only a torso dummy sitting in the store window. The once popular Regal Cinema is vacant but, oddly, one counter still has snack foods in the display.
The arcade across the hall has been gone for some time, once the draw of kids and teenagers. Of the few shops still open, including an eyeglass store, only Belk and CM Games were busy. Most stores offered hugely discounted bargains.
On the east end of the mall is the closed Sears store and, nearby, the escalators on that end were blocked with chairs because they didn’t work. On the west end the University of Tennessee “Power T” still hangs majestic from the ceiling, above a painted map of the UT campus on the floor below.
Many people, hearing of the closing in late January, were in the mall, poking here and there and taking cell phone photos. For many of the young adults there East Towne Mall had been an afternoon and weekend rendezvous with friends.
What’s ahead for the huge soon-to-be empty mall? The owners, Knoxville Partners LLC, have plans for an apartment complex on the grounds and a possible entertainment venue inside. A spokesman said recently the mall would be “redeveloped to create needed space.” They bought the mall in 2016 for an estimated $10.1 million with hopes of reviving it with big box stores, but the remaining large stores failed and left. The 961,000 square feet could hold lots of things including the Knox County School Administration Offices, as some people have wished. The owners managed to pay two years of back taxes last year but are said to be about $900,000 behind on other expenses and current taxes.
You’ve got until the end of January if you want to relive your days working, walking or shopping there. Take your camera, your walking shoes, and your memories. The mall may never be the same again.