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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    Crystal Mall crystal ball

    Shoppers hit the Crystal Mall in Waterford in search of deals and a little Christmas cheer on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving Friday Nov. 27, 2009.
    The Waterford Crystal chandelier on Nov. 25, 2011, at the Crystal Mall in Waterford. The chandelier survived an interior renovation in 1997, when the owners had to bow to public pressure and scrap plans to eliminate it from the new design. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    What’s going to happen to the giant crystal chandelier?

    For shopping’s strongest quarter of the year the Crystal Mall has gamely strung Christmas lights, and its retailer remnant is giving it their best season-of-magic try. A few smiling employees staff brightly lit stores that are still open if you need a diamond or a new pair of glasses. Or maybe someone on your list can use a load of store fixtures from the lingering Bed, Bath & Beyond.

    Over it all hangs the Waterford Crystal chandelier, awaiting its fate.

    It’s been crystal clear (not sorry) for years that the mall’s days are numbered, but what will happen to the property next is still unknown. For now, the contrast with the thronged hallways of the ’80s through the ’00s is so melodramatic it could make a Hallmark movie. The heroine comes home for the holidays from her big city marketing job, only to discover that the mall where she used to tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas and later worked her first real job now needs her to rescue it.

    Well, she’d have to give up and go back to Gotham. The owner of most of the Waterford mall’s square footage since 2012, Simon Property Group, stopped payment on a $95 million loan, and transferred the title back to the lender. All but one of the anchor stores has long since closed.

    When the Crystal Mall finally goes dark, that will be one last milestone for a commercial entity that personified the region’s change of emphasis from homegrown retailing to nationally branded stores. Its advent attracted shoppers by bringing in department store fashion, but the mall also hastened the inevitable for downtown New London, Groton, Norwich and smaller Main Street districts. A few local businesses moved to the mall; others stuck it out downtown until they expired. Now, the circle may close with a share of the market reverting to the locals as an alternative to the dominance of impersonal online shopping.

    The beginning was exciting, though. Mall developers introduced their shiny new property in 1984 with a dressy party for local dignitaries and seemingly everyone in Waterford. It was an opulent affair, for a party held on tiled floors between shop windows. One unforgettable sight was a well-known elementary school principal strolling away from the raw bar with crab legs sticking out of his jacket pockets. There was a contest to guess how many crystals were in the chandelier.

    In its glory years the mall’s management saw fit to be a benefactor to the wider community than just the Waterford tax base. There were various fundraisers, and the Simon company sponsored scholarships open to local kids. The mall doors would open before the stores so that morning fitness walkers could use the walkways, away from the weather outside. The most significant win-win came from the entry-level positions that gave local high school kids their first jobs, teaching the invaluable lessons of dealing with the public.

    That was then, before the decline of indoor-style malls, the rise of internet shopping and that killer of so many last chances, COVID-19. The near-emptiness of a huge structure and its acres of parking space is now. Whatever is next will not come easily, as different investors own different parts of the property with potentially only one common interest: profit.

    Developers are conditioned to expect a long game; their proposals routinely have to win an OK from many levels of government representing the competing interests of taxpayers, the environment and residents concerned about quality of life in the neighborhood.

    In February 2021 a Day editorial raised the issue of what uses a closed mall might have. Day Staff Writer Brian Hallenbeck has kept readers updated on financial developments that could affect the options. Around that time Waterford began steps to create an advisory body that would presumably ready the town for a seat at the table. The initial committee was composed of several town officials; members of the local legislative delegation; the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut; the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region; the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments; AdvanceCT and the state Department of Economic and Community Development. The town’s website does not list current activities for such a body, and a call to the first selectman’s office was not returned.

    The pace of defining the mall’s future looks like it could be wait, wait, hurry up. It is important to be ready when the gears shift. Waterford has a primary interest, as the host town, but the region and the state have an economic stake in what happens at the site. A regional economic development conversation is in order.

    Maybe Waterford could get first dibs on the chandelier.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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