Jan. 28—CARY — Even in the last week before Cary Towne Center shuts down, it has been business as usual inside. People sat on benches with their shopping bags, and mall walkers strolled quietly in pairs in the now barren shopping center, once the town’s flagship mall.

Of the few stores that remained open, masked employees made their last sales of the year and others packed leftover inventory into boxes. The final day of operations is Sunday for all of the mall’s stores, except for Dave & Buster’s.

After years of diminishing business and several different proposals to revive its future, the fate of Cary Towne Center was finally decided when Cary-based Epic Games announced Jan. 3 it had bought the mall’s 87 acres. The developer of the wildly popular video game “Fortnite” will redevelop it into its headquarters by 2024.

Now, the 40-year-old Cary Towne Center is winding down, leaving behind decades of memories as a shopping destination, a fun place for children and a hangout spot for generations upon generations of high school students.

“Clearly, the mall was no longer thriving,” says Maryrose Melito Kemp, a Cary resident for over 20 years. But, she says, “I’m so sad to see it go.”

Like many Triangle parents, Melito Kemp did her Christmas shopping there when the mall had Macy’s, J.C. Penney, Sears and Dillard department stores at its peak. Her children would visit Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny at the mall, where a train and carousel ride presented hours of fun for children.

When Kemp’s children were in high school, they’d get lunch at the food court and walk around, a frequent pastime for teens.

In announcing plans for Epic’s new headquarters, the company said it would start redeveloping the property later this year, The News & Observer reported. Until the new space is ready, it will remain at its current headquarters near the intersection of Crossroads Boulevard and Jones Franklin Road.

U.S. malls dying

More people will miss out on these memories as malls slowly shut down across the United States due to the long-term rise of e-commerce and more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Retail data suggests that 25% of America’s malls could shut their doors in the next five years, according to a CNBC story in August.

This has prompted real estate firms who own malls to redevelop them into walkable mixed-use commercial centers with offices and apartments.

The now-shuttered Northgate Mall in Durham is heading this direction and will be redeveloped with a mix of retail, office, residential and restaurant space, The N&O reported. Owners are expected to make it a pedestrian-friendly center with outdoor patios and green space.

That was one of the plans to save Cary Towne Center, when its former owners announced in October it would become Carolina Yards, a sprawling retail, hotel, office and residential development similar to North Hills in Raleigh. But Epic Games’ $95 million purchase of the site changed those plans.

The Cary shopping mall has seen several redevelopment plans proposed in recent years, including adding TopGolf to building an eagerly anticipated IKEA store. IKEA would have replaced the empty Sears and Macy’s anchor stores.

‘Bittersweet’ memories

Longtime Cary Town Council member Jack Smith remembers when he helped oversee the mall’s first major redevelopment in 1991 and the afternoons he spent walking the place.

“It’s bittersweet for me to see all this happening,” said Smith, who has been on the council for over 30 years. “The suddenness of it was a shock.”

But, he adds, putting Fortnite’s headquarters on the site may ultimately be the better option for the area.

“But in the end as the dust settles, I think Cary comes out farther ahead and the neighbors will end up probably enjoying it more, because there will be less traffic down Walnut Street and it will be kind of a quiet corporate area,” he told The News & Observer in an interview.

Turnbridge Equities, the mall’s previous owners, had been involved with the Town Council to redevelop the site, and had originally planned to leave 17 acres on the site for a future town community center. Smith still hopes the sports complex, which could attract more youth sports tournaments to the area.

“Sadly, it doesn’t matter what we want, the owners have a right to sell and they did,” Smith said. “The silver lining is we get a corporate headquarters from an internationally recognized company.”

He said Cary will get still the best deal possible: a development that will attract growth to the town and not compete with Fenton, an upcoming $850 million mixed-use center down the road on Cary Towne Boulevard.

When fully constructed, Fenton will include a Wegman’s grocery store as well other retail and housing.

He said any bittersweet memories are left for those who knew the mall in its heyday — not the thousands of people who have moved to the area in the last five years.

This week, Cary resident María Meza sat on a mall bench waiting on an order at Amir Jewelers, one of the last stores to close before Dave & Buster’s remains the sole operating business.

She remembered the cure to a boring afternoon for many residents was a short Cary Transit bus ride to the mall.

“In all seriousness,” she said. “I’m going to miss this place.”

Continue Reading