By Kristina Webb
The Palm Beach Mall opened in 1967 as the largest indoor mall in the Southeast. At the intersection of Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Interstate 95, it had a perfect position in a central location.
Today, however, a walk through the mall would tell you the sad tale of one of Palm Beach County’s first landmarks that once enjoyed visits from the rich and famous — and how the economy finally brought it to its knees.
The Palm Beach Mall stands empty, closed for good on Jan. 31. The only stores remaining are JC Penney and George’s Music, both of which have large, outdoor storefronts and long-term leases.
For local residents, this has been a long time coming.
JPMorgan Chase Bank foreclosed on the mall in 2008 after Simon Properties failed to pay $55.4 million in mortgage costs. West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel hopes the building, now owned by Japanese development company ORIX, will be given a new lease on life.
Peter Robbins, public information officer of West Palm Beach, said the management company has thought about putting in a “big box” retail store.
“The world changes and people’s shopping habits change,” Robbins said. “When this mall first opened it was ground-breaking on a national level. Most shopping centers have a certain life span, and I think that’s what happened here.”
As decisions are made on the final fate of the mall, tenant Jo Janeen Timmis is left looking for a home for her Puppet Theater, a museum and theater dedicated to the art of puppetry.
Timmis has been in the mall since 2009, but the Puppet Theater has been in Palm Beach County since 1993. The theater is empty now, with the stage disassembled and the puppets moved to a storage facility in Lake Worth.
With a photo album in hand, Timmis proudly displayed what she and her husband, Bill, put together with elbow grease and a little help from the community: a dividing wall, with the theater in the back and a museum and gift shop in the front.
“That’s the vegetable band with the dancing carrots,” Timmis said, smiling as she found a picture from a summer program she ran for teens several years ago.
With 200 shows a year and 19,000 people a year attending, Timmis is worried that Palm Beach County is losing a valuable resource.
“This is really devastating for the kids,” Timmis said. “My desire would be if a university or large church picked us up. The nearest center for the art of puppetry is Atlanta.”
Because of their precarious financial position, Timmis and her nonprofit group have been offered a temporary home. Still, she worries that the building’s owner will sell it and she will be forced to relocate once more.
“We’re in desperate need of an empty building,” Timmis said, adding that she hopes to someday have theater interns who are willing to learn and help her teach children about puppetry.
“There’s way more to this than just doing a puppet show,” Timmis said. “It’s a business, but it’s also about education and entertainment.”
Palm Beach County residents have complained for years about high crime rates at the mall, which many cite as a possible cause for its decline.
“The clientele here was less than friendly,” said West Palm Beach resident Scottie Jordan, who says that because of a spike in crime at the mall in the early 2000s, she began going to the Palm Beach Gardens Mall and the Town Center at Boca Raton.
On the Friday before the mall closed, Jordan stood in the middle of an empty concourse, shaking her head and staring at the recently-renovated main entrance.
“It’s such a shame,” Jordan said, adding that where malls like Gardens and the Town Center finished renovations in months with large budgets, the Palm Beach Mall seemed to just do a little bit at a time over a few years.
“It can’t be done piecemeal,” Jordan said. “It has to be done well, and it has to be done with money. I promise you, if I had the money, I would buy it and turn it into the centerpiece of Palm Beach.”
The Gardens Mall, which features fashion boutiques and anchor stores such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue, underwent a multimillion-dollar face lift completed in 2009.