What’s ahead for Concord’s Steeplegate Mall? Let us know

  • The main entrance of the Steeplegate Mall in Concord is pictured in April. GEOFF FORESTER

  • The Steeplegate Mall is Concord is basically empty on Wednesday morning, April 11, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Michelle and Cliff Doiron of Barnstead had to think long and hard about what they would like to see the Steeplegate Mall become if it fails as a mall. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/12/2018 10:05:57 PM

Concord’s Heights – a mix of commercial property on the east side of the city – is usually buzzing and busy.

Drivers switch lanes on Loudon Road to gain an edge as they maneuver to get somewhere quickly. Convenience stores and fast-food joints are hopping, customers in and out.

Cars need fixing and washing. Young people are vaping. With warmer weather comes a hankering for ice cream. All kinds of stores exist to meet those needs in this congested area, which includes Walmart, for the low-end shopper.

Right in the middle of it all is a usually quiet commercial giant: The Steeplegate Mall. This lonely behemoth is open seven days a week – 11 hours Monday through Saturday and seven hours on Sunday. Across the street, cars zoom in out and out of smaller shopping centers, while the mall’s parking lot remains mostly still and empty.

The muscle the mall once had in the 1990s has atrophied, replaced by a relic with a ghost-town feel that one day could be featured in a TV documentary about abandoned landmarks. Who needs a mall when you don’t have to leave home to shop?

The apparent death spiral of the mall begs bigger questions about the city of Concord, and even the future of retail. What does Concord do? More specifically, what do people want? If the mall goes away, what should be put there?

So I stood outside and waited to speak with mall shoppers.

And waited.

And waited.

Finally, with patience and a return trip a few days later, I found people. Some had suggestions, others had no idea.

Most shoppers simply wanted a better mall, saying that would save Steeplegate. One Concord-area resident told me this mall seemed to fade into obscurity faster than others.

“As I just said to him,” Michelle Doiron of Center Barnstead said, pointing to her husband, Cliff, “this mall was dead before malls were dead. Way before.”

Cliff suggested trampolines and condominiums. An interesting mix to be sure.

Concord finds itself in a identity crisis, a place that’s too big to be labeled as a town, with 43,000 residents, but too small to sustain certain institutions common to bigger cities, like Manchester, or even Portland, Maine.

Downtown Concord seems to be bustling. Perhaps the city cannot support a thriving downtown and mall at the same time.

Staying true to the tradition of malls, many suggested new ways of attracting and catering to children and teens. The mall already has a Bouncy House, but more is needed, something adventurous.

Lum Hajdari of Concord is a 29-year-old immigrant from Albania. He came to America eight years ago and owns the pizza shop at the mall’s food court, the lone place left to eat there.

He was outside the main entrance, near the trademark clock tower, for a cigarette break. He was optimistic about the mall’s future.

“I don’t think the mall is going anywhere,” he told me. “It could be better, but you have to keep in mind that all malls are having trouble.”

His faith in part is connected to a Sky Zone Trampoline Park. There’s one in Manchester, and Hajdari said he heard one’s coming here as well.

“It will bring a lot of teenagers,” Hajdari said.

Paul Noyes of Chichester stopped to chat on his way in with three buddies. He’s 23. He had a few ideas.

“I believe the mall should definitely have something to do with music,” Noyes told me. “They could turn this area into live music.”

And this: “Also, my dream has been a paintball course in here.”

Meredith Smith, 18, and her sister, 16-year-old Becca Smith, emerged from the mall with new clothing: Meredith with a jacket and skirt and sandals, Becca with leggings.

They said they shopped at Bon-Ton – one of the mall’s three anchor tenants – and got 60 percent off. Great deal. Trouble is, that’s part of Bon-Ton’s going out of business sale.

“More clothing stores,” Meredith said. “We always went to the mall, but honestly now it’s so dead that we don’t even bother coming here for back-to-school shopping.”

“No we go to Tilton or Manchester,” added Becca.

At 31, Julie Wilson of Franklin is old enough to remember when the mall was cool. “It used to be the hangout spot for middle school and high school,” Wilson told me. “Everyone used to be here. Now it’s tumbleweeds rolling by.”

Asked how to fix things, Wilson said, “The Mall of New Hampshire has glow mini golf. And maybe a Laser Tag place with those guns.”

Julie Bickford and her daughter came for Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt and left without it.

“We came for ice cream and even that is closed, and what time is it?” asked Bickford, who’s from Belmont.

It was 7:30 p.m., but that wasn’t the problem. Tutti Frutti wasn’t merely closed for the night.

Like half the stores in the mall, it’s closed for good, with its automatic security fence down and empty spaces where containers for chocolate chips and walnuts used to be.

Bickford had the most unique suggestion of anyone, telling me, after hesitating, “A mental health facility. Needing it is an understatement.”

Brittany Poole of Bow thought “a painting and wine night like they have downtown” might be a good idea. But that’s a lot of paint and wine to spread around the 500,000 square foot mall.

High-end, trendy clothing stores were cited as well. Meanwhile, storefronts looked out to the long, empty straightaways, with salespeople inside behind counters, flipping through magazines, waiting.

Even the Dunkin’ Donuts near the food court is gone. The Steeplegate Mall doesn’t run on Dunkin, apparently.

“Every time I come here I feel like there’s another store closing,” said Olivia Brown of Manchester, a young shopper. “It’s kind of sad that stores keep shutting down, but I don’t know what would help.”

What do you think? Use the form below and tell us what the future of the Steeplegate Mall should be.

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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