Route Fifty Roadmap: New Hospital Taking Shape in Vacant Mall Department Store

The former Lazarus department store building in Ontario, Ohio, in June 2013.

The former Lazarus department store building in Ontario, Ohio, in June 2013. Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com

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In Ontario, Ohio, a vast empty parking lot shows signs of life through an unusual new use for a challenging redevelopment site.

Route Fifty Roadmap is an ongoing series of dispatches from the semi-regular travels of the Route Fifty staff around the United States. | PREVIOUSLY: East Liverpool, Ohio

ONTARIO, Ohio — When I drove through this city just west of Mansfield for the first time in 2013, I was initially surprised by the vacant Lazarus department store at the Richland Mall. It’s not your average boxy shopping mall anchor.  

From W. 4th Street—the suburban main drag that heads west out of Mansfield and into Ontario—you can tell that the owners of the now-defunct Columbus-based department store chain wanted to have a distinctive retail edifice to draw in shoppers from the road. It caught my eye, for sure.

The white tower section, with a hat-like top, stood out, flanked by bold blue-colored rectangular exterior sections, all amid a vast sea of empty parking. It was an unexpected but eye-catching dichotomy along an ordinary Midwestern suburban strip.

It was obvious driving by that the department store was devoid of retail life as the rest of the Richfield Mall behind it was still in business.

A lot has been written about how American shoppers have been turning away from traditional indoor shopping malls and toward revitalized and walkable downtowns, neighborhood retail corridors or newly built town center developments—at least the shoppers who are still physically entering brick-and-mortar retail locations as online shopping continues to take root and flourish.

While dead shopping malls pose their own redevelopment challenges, a vacant anchor department store can be a big revitalization obstacle, too. And with major department stores like Macy’s continuing to face major trouble on Wall Street, there could be more anchor vacancies at shopping malls in the years to come.

There simply aren’t that many retailers that can easily take over the entire footprint of a traditional department store. A long-term vacant mall anchor can also be a drag on economic revitalization efforts elsewhere for local governments to deal with.

Last weekend while driving across Ohio, I decided to swing back by the Richland Mall to see if the old Lazarus department store was still vacant. I wasn’t expecting much.

The Avita Health System is transforming the former Lazarus department store in Ontario, Ohio, into a hospital. (Photo by Michael Grass / RouteFifty.com) 

But lo and behold, what was a vacant department store parking lot in 2013 now had a handful of cars in the parking lot, people walking in and out of the main entryway and construction activity at the site.

The old Lazarus department store at the Richland Mall has been undergoing a transformation into a new hospital for the Avita Health System, which was created in 2011 when two community hospitals in nearby Bucyrus and Galion merged.

As the Mansfield News Journal reported last November:

"It's also a model that works for Avita because it's three smaller hospitals in a geographical area that is real close so we can share specialty physicians," [Avita President and CEO Jerry] Morasko said. "We'll have specialists that go into Crawford County hospitals, both Bucyrus and Galion, which probably would never happen if we didn't have these three hospitals."

The expansion will include a 22-bed emergency department, seven-bed intensive care unit, 19-bed inpatient wing, four surgical suites, and 16 beds in a pre- and post-operation area. Avita also will expand its cardiology services, including heart catheterizations.

Adding a hospital to a shopping mall complex may seem usual but it’s not a bad idea for finding a new use for a hard-to-fill footprint.

But there are bigger redevelopment challenges for the city of Ontario and the greater Mansfield area across the street from the Richland Mall: the former General Motors Mansfield-Ontario Metal Center site. GM shuttered the massive facility in 2010 as part of a major restructuring when it entered bankruptcy protection.

Redevelopment efforts at the 266-acre site have been sluggish and problematic. Driving by last weekend, I found the former automotive complex to be an expansive pile of rubble. Revitalizing an old department store, for all its unique difficulties, seems like a walk in the park comparatively.

Next Stop: Upper Sandusky, Ohio

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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