KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — For nearly 35 years, the mall long known as East Towne Mall has stood as a fixture of Northeast Knoxville. These days, its once-bustling interior resembles a ghost town full of shuttered spaces, and on Halloween, its owners gave an update many saw coming.
Knoxville Center Mall will be closing on Jan. 31, 2020.
In a release sent out Thursday morning, it said the decision was not an easy one to make.
"The ownership of the property has determined that in order to create a space that Knoxville deserves the mall must be closed for redevelopment," the release sent out on behalf of the mall said.
Tenants have been given written notice that their leases will be terminated no later than Jan. 31, 2020.
It also said updates regarding the next steps for the property will be provided when available.
A Decade of Decline
The mall's struggles became increasingly apparent over the past decade, with mainstay tenants one-by-one shuttering their stores as the mall's customer base dried up.
As the smaller stores closed and spaces sat unfilled, the larger anchor department stores eventually followed.
It began with Dillard's, which closed in 2008. It was around this time many retail malls across the U.S. struggled to stay afloat amid the recession and consumer buying habits shifting more toward online shopping.
As the struggles mounted, there was a small bit of hope for the mall when new ownership announced it would try to revitalize empty spaces and return the mall to its former glory, even proposing bringing back its old 'East Towne' name.
August 2016: Knoxville Center mall sold for $10.1 million
September 2016: Investor talks details of Knoxville Center's future
But things came tumbling down when JCPenney closed in 2017. Victoria's Secret, Sears and other stores followed in 2018.
February 2018: Victoria's Secret closes at Knoxville Center Mall
Gold's Gym closed. Knox County Schools' Volunteer Academy, which occupied some 6,400 square feet since 2010, followed in the summer of 2018.
The situation had become dire, with Belk and the Regal theater left standing as the last bastions to draw people in.
On Thursday morning, Regal's sign was blacked out and Regal's website doesn't list any showtimes past Oct. 31.
Regal employees confirmed that Oct. 31 was the last day the theatre would be open.
Even Christmas shopping, which used to pack the mall and bring in people from the Tri-cities and beyond, began to paint a depressing picture of the mostly-vacant mall.
Eventually, Belk announced in August 2019 it would be leaving in mid-November.
Other long-time tenants, like Signature Diamonds, followed by announcing they would be moving out.
As of Sept. 28, 2019, just 10 businesses remained on the upper level and six on the lower level.
"East needed it very badly"
The mall opened to much excitement in "what used to be a hayfield" under the name East Towne Mall in July 1984.
Located off Interstate 640 and Millertown Pike, it boasted more than 80 shops and a series of popular department stores that attracted massive crowds for many years. The mall was a huge undertaking that transformed that section of Northeast Knoxville, bringing all sorts of new businesses and development in its wake.
Even in its unfinished state when it first opened, crowds were packed in and lined out the door at the grand opening -- with people buzzing at the chance to see the massive new shopping and entertainment center.
You can see just how electrifying its presence was in this video from the grand opening in 1984:
"They say with a good economy, things should look up for quite some time," Action 10 News' Susan Minner reported at the time.
Those words would turn out to be partially prophetic, with the first major cracks appearing during the 2008 recession and Dillard's closing.
Legal Trouble Looms
Amid the closures and struggles, the owners of Knoxville Center are facing two lawsuits alleging they failed to pay their bills.
ERMC LLC and SecurAmerica LLC of Georgia filed the complaints earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, records show.
Together the lawsuits seek nearly $950,000 from the mall owners, formerly known as Knoxville Partners LLC and now called Millertown Pavilion LLC.
According to the lawsuits, mall owners stopped paying security bills in October 2017 and maintenance and janitorial bills in March 2018.
Original contracts for the services were signed in November 2016, according to the complaints.
Security bills now amount to $505,152, and janitorial and maintenance bills now amount to $439,746, the lawsuits state.
The company paid up overdue back taxes in late 2018, but now again owes nearly half a million dollars to the city and county.
Thursday, Knoxville's mayoral candidates weighed in on possible next steps for the sprawling East Knoxville site.
Indya Kincannon said she would support a mixed-use development at the site, with the possibility of moving some city offices there.
"There’s huge demand in the community to have that be a prosperous place to go. An asset, not a liability," Kincannon said.
Eddie Mannis said he'd also support a mixed-use development but proposed a broader plan.
"I would love to see it become the town center at East Towne," he said. "I've made no bones about the fact that I would like to at some point consider moving municipal government there."
Of course, any plans would need cooperation from the owner, Brant Enderle.