Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center

empty retail space in shopping mall, Baden, PA

One of dozens of former retail spaces now empty in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Beaver County

It’s a big room–maybe three thousand square feet. Where there used to be tile, the floor is now scraped clean, down to hard brown mastic. The walls and ceiling persist a very 1980s palette of hot mauve and battleship gray. Each side of the space still has one long set of track lighting, its bulbs intact, trained on the wall as if the space was most recently an art gallery or framing shop–possibly a dramatically-lit purveyor of boutique clothing or novelty gifts. At the back of the former store a single checkout island remains, its electric service dropped through conduit from the ceiling like a lifeline to the outside world.

This big empty space is a mystery–but it’s not alone. Pick a direction and there are many more like it: this one with colored tile and mirrored walls; that one with rectangular scars on the floor where heavy shelving used to be. An old A&P in glorious minty green and candy-apple red; an ex-Radio Shack with placards still advertising home theater, batteries, and wireless phones. In a former Chinese restaurant a grocery buggy is incongruously parked where diners used to eye up menu photos of Szechuan beef and General Tso’s Chicken.

interior of vacant, former grocery store in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-grocery (A&P, probably?)

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

On November 1, 1956 an entirely new experience greeted citizens of the commonwealth. With some sixty-five retail spaces–many of them gigantic, sized for furniture or department stores–spread out over three separate, long, low-slung buildings and hosting free parking for four thousand automobiles[1], Northern Lights Shoppers City must have felt every bit of its believable claim as Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center.

The new uber-plaza wasn’t in Philadelphia or its expansive suburbs, nor did it serve metro Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, or Harrisburg. It was located twenty-some miles northwest of us in Beaver County.

interior of vacant retail space in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The terrific all-things-Beaver County blog Ambridge Memories has a great post on the opening (and, seven months later, Grand Opening) of Northern Lights. In this pre-mall era[2], the “shoppers city” monicker (it would be renamed Northern Lights Shopping Center some time later) turns out to be remarkably on-target. Unlike indoor malls we’ve come to expect, Northern Lights opening array of retail reads like a quintessential Main Street for any small town in America.

In addition to mall staples like department stores, restaurants, shoes, clothing, cards and gifts, there were two pharmacies, three supermarkets (A&P, Kroger, and Star), plus a butcher, green grocer, and bakery. Northern Lights offerings also included a bank, furniture store, optometrist, appliances, laundromat, hardware, automotive, dry cleaner, and beauty salon.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

The little Ohio River town of Conway (pop. ~1,800 in the mid-1950s; a little larger today[3]) might seem a strange choice for the location of such a gigantic development. In fact, the footprint for Northern Lights is just about identical in acreage to Conway’s lower street grid. Imagine a shopping plaza equal in size to your entire home town, with parking for cars numbering twice the total population.

The location was inevitably aimed at drawing from the larger Ohio Valley region, then still booming with active mill towns. Conway sits just about half way between the substantially-larger Ambridge to the south and the quad cities of Rochester-Beaver-Beaver Falls-New Brighton to the north. Across the river and easily accessible are Aliquippa and Monaca.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Today, it would be unfair to call Northern Lights a dead mall. There are definitely still enough open businesses to fill a lesser destination. Giant Eagle and a Wine & Spirits store alone make the location viable, but the shopping center also includes Dollar Tree, Napoli Pizza, and Avenue Boutique, a dialysis clinic, laundromat, a couple doctors’ offices, barber, and police substation.

But take a walk around and it won’t feel like Northern Lights’ property owners see a lot of future here. The former Ames (which was a Hills before that; we don’t know what the space opened as) is being readied for demolition with all the construction fence and heavy equipment to prove it. A number of glass storefronts are covered in protective plywood. Looking through the windows of other spaces yields an eerie view–not of available retail space, but rather one that reads as closed-and-left-town-in-the-night, leaving a pile of junk behind.

vacant former Radio Shack store in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

ex-Radio Shack

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

There’s no one factor that led Northern Lights to this point. We know retail in general and shopping malls in particular have suffered for years. This is a national trend affecting city, suburb, and small town alike.

Northern Lights would have to deal with serious competition–first from the more modern Beaver Valley Mall (opened 1970), then The Internet. Couple that with the loss of thousands and thousands of well-paying steel industry jobs and the massive buying power they once provided all evaporating.in short order in the 1980s.

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

vacant retail space in former Northern Lights Shopping Center, Conway, PA

unknown

Perhaps the cruelest plot point is that Northern Lights Shopping Center–itself a ruthless aggressor in the retail war with various Main Streets up and down the Ohio River Valley–was ultimately cannibalized by the same buy-cheap-and-convenient economic forces that brought it to life.

In 2014, WalMart opened a new megastore on the hillside just above the plaza, despite a major legal fight with Giant Eagle. The route to get there is a brand new road, created via eminent domain, right through the demolished space where J.C. Penny used to be[4]. If no one shops at Northern Lights anymore, at least they drive through its enormous parking lot to get to WalMart.

interior of vacant Chinese restaurant in Northern Lights Shopping Center, Baden, PA

ex-Chinese restaurant


[1] Source: http://ambridgememories.blogspot.com/2013/11/northern-lights-shoppers-city-opening.html
[2] Actually, Southdale Center, the “world’s first modern shopping mall,” opened in 1956–the very same year as Northern Lights–in suburban Minneapolis. Source: https://gizmodo.com/the-worlds-first-modern-shopping-mall-5114869
[3] Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway,_Pennsylvania#Demographics
[4] Source: https://archive.triblive.com/news/pittsburgh-allegheny/work-on-wal-mart-supercenter-set-to-begin-in-beaver-county/

27 thoughts on “Lights Out: The Slow Death of Pennsylvania’s Largest Shopping Center

  1. Pcw says:

    The shopping center died because of lack of upkeep and investment by the owner of the property. J C Penny moved out first because of serious leaks that the owners refused to fix. It was the anchor store and others then followed.

    Like

  2. John doe says:

    We heard the owner of the Center isn’t interested in new businesses. They don’t follow through with merchants who have shown an interest. Probably the high tax write off

    Like

  3. Michael Medina says:

    People over think things. The simple truth is that NL is kinda in the middle of nowhere now. Which worked great when it was the only game in town, but…

    Now anybody that lives more than a mile or 2 away, has better options in other directions. Be it Center or Cranberry. Ambridge itself is the only area left that NL was the best destination option for.

    There were a few other issues in regards to NL’s anchor stores. Giant Eagle was a dump until recently. Easily the worst grocery store of the modern variety. Giant Eagle itself was every bit as culpable for pushing grocery sales in other directions. The other one was the demise of Hill’s dept store.

    When Hill’s closed, Walmart in Center had not yet had such a firm grip on the region as it was still new. If Ames had managed to do a timlier takeover of Hill’s, thing might be better. Unfortunately, Ames somehow took 9 months to get doors back open. By then even Ambridge’s die hard crowd of unwilling travelers, had given up and embraced Walmart.

    Like

  4. Concerned community says:

    Very sad. Appears management doesn’t want business. The rates they want for space are not appropriate for there. There are run down and not a prime location any longer. If they can’t get a fortune, they will just take the write off.

    Like

  5. Economy Man says:

    Something smells rotten about this whole situation. How come the councils from Economy,Conway and Baden aren’t applying pressure about development ? Where are the local
    politicians ? Build it and they will come. It sure beats heading across the river to Center and all the Cracker workers and fighting the traffic on Freedom road to get to Cranberry to get something decent to eat and shop. Eminent domain that place and you would open the floodgates. Seems weird having a Wallmart there without any kind of store or restaurant close by.

    Like

    • Michelle says:

      Whenever Economy was talking about building the Walmart they said that NL would “flourish”. That never happened, in fact more stores have closed. Shell coming to Beaver County isn’t changing that either. Maybe Shell can buy it LOL

      Like

  6. Michael Mengel says:

    The Hills store was either a Grants or S.S. Kresge before it was Hills. One was at each end of the shopping center with J.C. Penney in the middle. Shopped at all three when I was a kid.

    Like

  7. Rick Holcomb says:

    Before it was Ames or Hills that location housed a Grants. I don’t think the store with the green and red walls was an A&P. All the stores were populated after A&P left Western PA.

    Like

      • Candy says:

        I think you are right Diane, I was quite young when NL opened but I don’t remember an A&P being there. My grandmother loved A&P and we had to go to Rochester to take her to one. I think Star came after Thorofare closed.

        Like

      • GERALD A PROSIO says:

        I lived right behind Northern lights when it opened. On the south side was A&P which was next to the bank and then Krogers which was near Sun Drugs.

        Like

  8. Dina Creighton says:

    Can someone do a study on the tremendous tax breaks and incentives that are offered to the builders? After their tax free years run out, the owners are not of a mind to start paying high taxes and move on to build a newer and bigger place with newer and better tax breaks and incentives. It’s the business economic model we have in the US that’s causing this phenomenon all over. I would like to see someone doing a research study on this to explain it to the people who don’t understand what’s going on .

    Like

  9. Michelle says:

    At this point, the owner is just using it as a write-off. For someone to say it is in the middle of nowhere, it is not for people who live in the area. True, I could go to Cranberry, but why would I, it’s a nightmare out there and I would rather support local Beaver County businesses in Economy, Baden and Conway. The owner needs to just demolish everything and start over.

    Like

    • Pittsburgh Orbit says:

      Agreed that Northern Lights isn’t “middle of nowhere”–the towns are smaller, but the location is still right on Rt. 65 and there are plenty of people still in Ambridge and Beaver Valley.
      I’d always rather see something get fixed-up and reused rather than “just demolish everything and start over,” but that’s me.

      Like

  10. Melinda Bergman says:

    Would love to see a gym similar to Planet Fitness go in there, to have to go to the mall or towards cranberry especially during busy road times is beyond reasonable. Also would love to see maybe some sort of space open up so that schools baseball/softball teams could have an indoor practice facility to help keep kids practicing their sport but also out of trouble during off season. STM in Rochester is always booked and also not that great of a space. Some other family oriented stores or restaurants would also be nice.

    Like

  11. Peter says:

    we at.”The Local Barbershop” are doing quite well thanks to hard work and our customers/friends. We also have been listening to scuttlebutt’ to varying degrees over the past 15 years and that’s a long time

    Like

  12. Marlene says:

    I agree that a fitness gym would be good in that area. As well as something family oriented. Years ago there skating rinks in several areas. It is too bad kids today can’t experience those fun times.

    Like

  13. Vicki Orsini says:

    It’s sad, this could be such a boost to our neighboring towns and boost property values….if the owners don’t want to develop it, PLEASE sell it to someone who will!

    Like

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