The previous half of this mega-blog post explored Forest Fair Village pictorially, showing what happens when an investment company is left wringing whatever remaining profit they can derive from an almost completely dead attraction. This mall—98% vacant yet also 98% open to the public—is hardly unique, even by Cincinnati standards, which, like most metros of its size, is no stranger to dead and dying retail centers. But few malls have endured such repeated rebranding efforts, often coupled with tens of millions in new investment, only to find the efforts stall again and again. One look at Forest Fair Village’s appearance shows that considerable more effort, artistry, and money went into its interior, which never managed to yield more than a temporary boost in occupancy, only for the investors to watch it plunge again. This condition has characterized the mall since its ribbon-cutting in 1989. While many malls enjoyed at least a decade of assured profitability, Forest Fair Village was only on stable footing for a year or two, here and there, and even then, the deficiencies were glaring.
So why did this vast mall, completed in 1989 and already significantly vacant by 1995, never really take off? As any real estate expert will tell you, the answer has something to do with location, location, location—but it’s not entirely that simple. Yes, the boundary between these two suburbs, Forest Park and Fairfield, was a lousy place to put a mall. But there’s nothing intrinsically deficient about these communities themselves; they’re not overtly declining. Just look at the area immediately outside the mall’s premises.I know this photo doesn’t reveal much, but there’s obvious commerce taking place: national chain restaurants like Panera Bread, Chipotle, IHOP, Red Lobster, Burger King, and regional ones like Bob Evans featured in the photo—which is significant in itself, because the faltering Ohio-based family dining establishment popular with seniors has been closing its less profitable locations, even as the senior population is at an all-time high. Virtually all the outparcel in the parking lot ringing Forest Fair Village are occupied, so the mall is a unique blight. The surrounding area is still strong, especially compared to some of my other dead mall explorations, particularly the former Bannister Mall in Kansas City, where a vast expanse of suburban retail—one strip mall after another—all completely failed.
The folly that is Forest Fair is almost certainly a byproduct of wealth multiplied by equal parts ignorance and arrogance. Developer LJ Hooker, an Australian real estate company that had enjoyed decades of escalating success through acquisitions and the development of residential and quasi-residential projects (hotels, nursing homes), decided to cut its teeth through retail, under a new CEO: specifically, large-scale department stores in the United States. At this point in the mid-1980s, many established American department stores were floundering, triggering a concatenation of bankruptcies, mergers, and consolidations that culminated in the early 2000s, resulting in the situation today, where the middle-market bracket consists almost entirely of a handful of national mega-companies: specifically, JCPenney, Sears, Macy’s, Kohl’s, and Dillard’s. By the late 2000s, virtually all malls had at least one of these chains; many had two or three, eliciting an astonishing redundancy to the mall culture that, while it didn’t instigate their current sorry state, certainly didn’t help.
LJ Hooker’s misguided foray into American department stores combined both struggling older brand names with poorly-conceived locational decisions. These bad decisions culminated in Forest Fair Mall, which proved so foolhardy that it nearly collapsed the company. As indicated earlier, the team investing in this mall merely chose an exit ramp of Cincinnati’s beltway (Interstate 275), with no consideration regarding its suitability. The two suburbs that the huge mall property straddles, Fairview and Forest Park, are middle class, but LJ Hooker aspired for Forest Fair to attract an upper-middle clientele, having purchased Parisian, Bonwit Teller, Sakowitz, and B. Altman—all higher income (B. Altman was luxury), and all except Parisian folded during LJ Hooker’s brush with bankruptcy in 1990. (The Parisian name held out until 2006.)
The immediate demographics of the surrounding area were only part of the problem. Forest Fair located in an area that was already over-malled. Just seven miles to the southwest, the Northgate Mall was only two exits away on I-275; meanwhile, the Tri-County Mall stood only two exits in the other direction—a mere four miles away, and typically an eight-minute drive from Forest Fair! One could argue that malls in the late 1980s still enjoyed enough of a mystique that any new opening was an event, regardless of whether the mall fulfilled a niche. And Forest Fair in 1989 was no different, opening to considerable fanfare as the biggest mall-based attraction in the Lower Midwest. Though I don’t remember it, I’m sure they marketed it as an attraction to prospective customers in neighboring cities, of which there are quite a few within a two-hour drive: Columbus, Dayton, Louisville, Lexington, Indianapolis. But it couldn’t sustain the crowds at all. And, though nowhere near as dead as Forest Fair Village, neither Tri-County nor Northgate are doing well; Northgate in particular may look like Forest Fair within the next three years.
Malls in close proximity are rarely a great idea, but they aren’t necessary a surefire failure. In my home city of Indianapolis, Castleton Square (a middle to upper-middle income mall) and Fashion Mall at Keystone (high-end) are a mere three miles apart. But they are very different: Fashion Mall is smaller and niche and exclusively luxury or specialty retailers, often featuring the only location of a specialty brand in the entire state; Castleton is the single biggest mall in Indiana (1.4M square feet), with the largest Macy’s until one reaches Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. They have largely complemented one another, though Castleton has begun weakening considerably the last few years, having lost Sears like so many malls before it. Meanwhile, creating the southern vertex in a right triangle, Glendale Town Center (Indy’s oldest mall) managed to compete at a lower-tier, despite being just four miles to the south of the Fashion Mall. Glendale received a considerable renovation in 2007, largely getting “de-malled”, which kept it viable for over a decade after it had previously struggled. However, Glendale’s prime anchor, Macy’s, announced its closure about a year ago; no need for two locations of the once-mighty department store, considering that the Macy’s at Castleton is just a 12-minute drive away.
Perhaps Cincinnatians just don’t share the same taste for luxury—which Sakowitz and Bonwit Teller at the original Forest Fair certainly represented—as they do in New York City. But the reality is that, even less lavish, smaller Midwest Metros like Indy and Cincy do claim a core demographic with the income and demand for fine goods; the issue is the alignment with their respective “side of town” and whether it’s scaled appropriately. The Fashion Mall (now slightly over 700,000 square feet after a few expansions, so just a medium-sized mall) sits squarely in the affluent outer northern reaches of Indianapolis, just a mile south of the tony suburb of Carmel. It also only offers two high-end department stores, which is all Indianapolis can support. (Indy once claimed two Nordstroms, which is a lot for a metro of its size, but the original one at the downtown Circle Centre Mall closed in 2011, leaving only the one at the Fashion Mall.) In Cincinnati, many of the wealthiest neighborhoods are west-northwest of downtown, so Forest Fair Village was requiring its target demographic to drive halfway across town for the prized goods. It didn’t show up. Not enough of an attraction, and they could meed their demand through retailers closer to home.
In short (too late), Forest Fair Mall proves the old adage about retail and location, even though malls seemed like a surefire winner the late 80s and early 90s. Nothing any of the subsequent investors could do would salvage the snakebit site straddling two very middle class suburbs, both of which already had easy access to two other malls. Forest Fair would have to distinguish itself, which it did through luxury, but the luxury market just wasn’t on that side of town and already had other high-end options to suit its needs.And I only learned this from the commenters to the previous blog post: the pastel-nautical-kitsch Americana interior was not the original design. While it may have appeared luxurious at the time, the LJ Hooker interior was completely different. An old article on the largely defunct site Dead Malls featured a profile on Forest Fair with some shots of the previous interior (scroll all the way down), which is a testament to how long this mall has underperformed. In late 2002-2003, the Mills Corporation purchased the property at a point when it already had well over 50% vacancy and spent millions renovating the interior, rebranding it Cincinnati Mills Mall and again luring some desirable tenants like Saks Off-5th, the slightly downmarket offshoot of the luxury department store and probably a more appropriate tenant for the area. It was then that the mall took on the very 1990s interior—a signature approach for the Mills Corporation—which of course was dated even back in 2004, but it was distinctive enough that the splashy interior lured considerable local media coverage, once again morphing it to a mini attraction. The repurposing worked for about two years, galvanizing the occupancy to over 90%, only to watch it quickly falter. Then the Great Recession brought it down a peg or two, leading to its current sorry state.
The Mills Corporation struggled, no doubt in part from weak investments but also questionable accounting practices, only to be rescued in 2007 through a purchase of its assets by none other than the mall giant, Simon Property Group (based out of Indianapolis). Never one to hang on to malls that are clearly destined for failure, Simon quickly sold Forest Fair/Cincinnati Mills to a Cincinnati-based holding company, North Star Realty, in 2009, who dropped the “Mills” from the name and ushered in a new wave of closures. Other investment companies purchased the rapidly depreciating property in the early 2010s, renaming it to Forest Fair Village and occasionally offering ambitious redevelopment proposals, but nothing could stem the flow. The most interesting and promising prospect came from a Nashville-based Christian media company, who hoped to turn it into a TV/movie production studio—no need to remodel for the game shows!—but it’s hard to find any information about this proposal since 2017.
So where does this albatross attraction of four decades leave the pockmarked landscape of the northern Cincinnati suburbs? Well, aside from a flagrant eyesore at Exit 39 on I-275, things in Fairfield and Forest Park seem fine. As indicated earlier, the rest of the retail landscape seems par for the course—sure, it’s probably under strain from all the failing national brands (virtually nowhere in the country is unaffected), but it still boasts national and super-regional chains: Meijer, Walmart, Kroger (the latter a Cincinnati company). There’s no evidence of a preponderance of mom-and-pop establishments in areas that should have high land value (i.e., right off a major exit ramp), nor do I see a wealth of derelict buildings, pockmarked parking lots, or a plethora of cheap red-letter signs in the strip malls. Forest Fair/Cincinnati Mills/Forest Fair Village is the outlier here. All the money and brains behind the concept of this mega-mall, which clearly tried the “mall as major event” or “mall as theme park” approach, couldn’t overcome the locational weaknesses.
While it’s possible that the mall typology handicapped any good idea—i.e., no type of major shopping node would have become an enduring attraction —it’s likely that a completely different commercial endeavor would have succeeded. It is still possible to create a retail-oriented attraction that impels people to drive over an hour to get there. The evidence is just a few miles away.
Anyone remotely close to the Cincinnati metro knew long ago what the real focal point of this blog article would be. Jungle Jim’s International Market is everything that Forest Fair Mall (and at least a half-dozen other malls, in aggregate) aspired to be. It sits squarely on a stretch of nondescript highway, surrounded by the usual suburban trappings: strip malls, car dealerships, fast food drive-thrus. The parking lot to Jungle Jim’s is enormous; the entire operation certainly isn’t walkable.But neither is the setting for your average mall. Nor is King’s Island, Cincinnati’s prominent and popular amusement park about five miles to the east.
I reference King’s Island because that, in part, is what Jungle Jim’s has elevated itself over the years: it is an event-scale destination, an amusement park for food. There’s no other attraction quite like it, at least not in the MIdwest. The entry, though scattershot and not as heavily branded as one might expect (the signage for Jungle Jim’s is so subtle that it’s easy to miss), offers enough visual novelty to signal that it’s not just a typical big-box retailer.Aside from the monorail train car subtly perched in the left background in the previous parking lot photo (inherited after King’s Island discontinued it), the jungle motif at Jim’s helps evoke a sense of adventure, and the novelty of the merchandise gives the entire place an unprecedented sense of discovery, akin to a safari.And it is precisely this novelty and monumentality that makes Jungle Jim’s a super-regional attraction, popular to people from at least a hundred miles away. It was packed even on this dour weekday in December. Though I regrettably failed to check license plates in the lot, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least a few visitors came from much further than Indiana or Kentucky, the two neighboring states. Not bad for a grocery store. But then, most grocery stores aren’t 300,000 square feet—bigger than your typical mall department store.
Jim Bonaminio, the eponymous founder of this Cincinnati landmark, cut his teeth in sales at a very young age, and started running his own produce stand in 1971, out of a nondescript parking lot in the nearby city of Hamilton, midway between Cincinnati and Dayton. Targeting a clientele of industrial workers who could purchase produce during their lunch break from his position in a parking lot, Bonaminio found an unlikely but harmonious fit that allowed him to grow incrementally, initially in a smaller more conventional produce market setting. A doubling in size in the 1990s put Jungle Jim’s in the upper tier of grocery stores, not just in metro Cincinnati but the country. The unconventional U shape to the floor plate defies normal human navigational instincts, so it’s easier to get lost during the first visit. (In response to this, Jungle Jim’s offers daily tours of the premises.)
It was only in the more recent expansions, largely in the last twenty years, that Jungle JIm’s evolved from an elaborate farmer’s market to an international market.And this isn’t just Asian and Hispanic and kosher foods. The store features entire aisles devoted to Polish, Malaysian, and Nepalese products, among many others.Each one of the alcoves on this wall features goods from another country, and the entrances to the doorways receive customized decorations. But when Jungle Jim’s isn’t flaunting its cosmopolitanism, it’s got a distinctive cheeky humor, a bit akin to the devil-may-care attitude at a Trader Joe’s (with which it undoubtedly competes in metro Cincy) and the lesser-known, cultish clearance store Ollie’s Bargain Outlet. Oh, and a little bit of the Badlands kitsch emporium Wall Drug thrown in.In the photo below, you get the option of an outhouse, but if you want civilization, you still have to first make it through a Porta Potty to get to the actual restrooms.From what I could tell, Jungle Jim’s also features a humidor, a test kitchen, a sushi counter, other classroom space, and to show how with-it Bonaminio is, he added a full kombucha bar.The beer, wine, and liquor department is in itself the size of a conventional suburban grocery story. Outside—based on some of the latest expansions—it has an events and banquet space, a garden center, a Starbucks, a Jersey Mike’s Subs, and a Hallmark store, among other outparcls. So essentially the central attraction is also an anchor tenant. And, of course, Jungle Jim’s has everything one would expect in a real supermarket…as long as the customer is willing to wade through the crowds toward that check-out lane. Which really shouldn’t be a problem.After all, when was the last time you went grocery shopping and all the checkout lanes were operative and fully staffed?
The one real oddity of Jungle Jim’s is, even though it obviously markets itself as an attraction —grocery shopping as a recreational rather than a utilitarian experience—most attractions encourage a person to linger. But lingering isn’t always easy if the patron has a cart full of rapidly perishable goods. Somehow, Jungle JIm’s makes it work: a person can meander through the international section (a separate wing, with mostly non-perishables) or the alcohol section (the same), then conclude a two- or three-hour visit with a run through the actual grocery and its produce section.
I’ll cut this off though, before this starts morphing into an ad campaign. Obviously that’s not my point. The reality is that Jungle Jim’s has emerged as one of the region’s biggest attractions, and unlike the flush-with-cash LJ Hooker company, Bonaminio started from humble origins and built himself up. He now offers a second location in the western suburbs, though I hear it lacks the same whimsical pastiche as the Fairfield location. But it’s still a locally owned and fully homegrown enterprise, not the pet project of a foreign interloper like Forest Fair Mall. And, thanks to careful consideration during its growth and a sensitivity to the market, Jungle Jim’s has become everything that Forest Fair had aspired to be. A great retail center can, when carefully conceived, become an attraction in and of itself. Jungle Jim’s takes a department store ethos (Macy’s?) and reinterprets it through food.
I suppose it’s vaguely reminiscent of the successful northeastern chain Wegmans, in that it strives to cover such tremendous ground that it takes that basic human need, sustenance, and elevates the act of eating into an experience, either like a pioneer (at Jungle Jim’s) or affordable luxury (at Wegman’s). Between the two, Jungle Jim’s still has the edge, not only because of its novelty (only two locations compared to Wegmans’ one hundred) but the lack of a corporate feel eliminates the homogeneity; a Jungle Jim’s may be more chaotic than a Wegman’s, but it also has a lot more personality. The very scarcity of Jungle Jim’s locations makes them more coveted than just about any other type of grocery store; it isn’t unrealistic to think some people come all the way from Chicago.
Forest Fair never had that sort of magnetism. Not that one would expect that from a mall these days, but at least in the late 1980s the opening of a new mall was a reasonably significant event. All the efforts to make Forest Fair an event-laden attraction failed, because, quirky though that interior may be, Mall of America it most certainly is not. An enduring attraction must have the capacity to distinguish itself from anything in a considerably large radius, and Forest Fair simply couldn’t do it. Is there ever a chance that an enterprising developer will purchase Forest Fair for a song, reinvent it, and transform the space to something as beloved a Jungle Jim’s, barely two miles to the north? Only when pigs fly.