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From must-see mall to foreclosure, a brief history of the Park Plaza Mall

Before Park Plaza Mall went up for auction, Craig O'Neill ran through the history of the groundbreaking shopping center that turned into Little Rock's must-see mall.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — It was 1958, I was seven years old, and my dad was taking us to church. He made a left off Markham onto the newly-paved University Avenue.

I looked to my right and saw land was being cleared by heavy equipment. And this is what it became the Park Plaza Shopping Center.

The shopping center opened in 1960. A two-story, open-air center that was west Little Rock's first major shopping center. This began the erosion of shoppers from downtown Little Rock.

Park Plaza had everything. It had groceries, you could go bowling downstairs, visit a cafeteria upstairs, or use your paper route money to go into Crank's Drug Store and buy your family Christmas gifts.

But in 1967 something happened. 

University Mall opened and it was Park Plaza's turn to watch shopper migration.

For close to 20 years, they limped along knowing they had to do something.

I wore a tuxedo on that day in 1988. I had bought tuxedo shorts because it was July of that year when I emceed the opening of Park Plaza Mall.

There were three floors of popular mainstream stores. It was a shopper's destination and became a focal point for community events from health fairs, magnet school fairs, growing Angel Trees and meeting Santa, and even can constructions for the food bank.

It was where a future president went to the movies -- a place entrenched in the collective memory of Arkansans statewide, including Lance Turner.

"You know, I remember coming here as a high school student a lot on field trips and this would be our favorite place, our choice place to come for lunch," Turner said.

As editor of Arkansas Business, he can also recall when Park Plaza's financial challenges began in 2008, the great recession.

"And so retailers began to have a tougher go of it, in terms of paying for their commercial space and making revenue and all those kinds of things to make a viable business, and that affected malls," Turner explained.

Then came Amazon and online shopping. And adding to the pressure, the pandemic. The mall ownership bubble burst.

"And so they got to a point where they couldn't make the payment. They missed a mortgage payment," Turner said.

Park Plaza is now in foreclosure, but with Dillard's not going anywhere, Turner feels these aren't the end times.

"The mall mix is going to change, but I think a lot of the elements we see today are going to remain. It's just going to look a lot different," he said.

So different from the 80's and 90's, it now becomes a 404,000 sq. ft. monument to the one sure thing in all our lives -- change.

"When it comes to business, nostalgia can play a role. Really what's gonna matter is what pays the rent," Turner said.