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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

Last rites were pronounced over an old friend this past week when it was announced that the Summit would be closing its doors on June 6.

The current owners said they have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and that all of the stores in the mall's interior were given their walking papers. A trio of free-standing anchor stores -- Sears, Bon Ton and Save-A-Lot -- will remain open, as they own their own plots and control their own fates.

The death knell came as a bit of an anti-climactic shock. The retail center has been in a decades-long decline from its '70s and '80s heyday, when it was known as the Summit Park Mall. In recent years, the mall struggled to reinvent itself while the current owners put in millions of dollars of renovations, including a new roof. Despite the cosmetic makeover, the mall could not find a formula to capture the growing Wheatfield market.

For some time, there was hope that the long-proposed Oz theme park would materialize and resurrect the Summit. Before that, a year-round Christmas shop theme was floated. There was even an attempt to have a factory outlet base of stores to piggyback off the success of the Military Road outlets.

Those ideas turned out to be mirages in an endless desert of deadend dreams and desolation. The mall was given new life a few years back due to two developments. The first was a spate of locally owned businesses that catered to a diverse clientele -- shops like the Krow's Nest, Omega Sports and the Summit Park Pharmacy. The second shoe fell into place when discount sporting-goods clothier Steve and Barry's took over the old Jenss store in 2005. Suddenly, there were cars filling the mall's ample parking spaces, and it seemed as if the tide had finally turned.

In Las Vegas of the 1970s, most casinos employed someone known as a cooler. The cooler was nature-made bad luck. Say that a guy was rolling nothing but sevens and 11s at the craps table. The cooler would be summoned and he'd saunter up to the table and drop down a bet. Quicker than you can say "Bugsy Siegel," the poor moke throwing the bones would hit snake-eyes, and the casino would regain its loaned chip equity.

It seems as if the sour national economy served as a cooler for the Summit. Steve and Barry's, which was highly profitable inside the mall, filed for bankruptcy nationally. A liquidation specialist took over the chain and in short order filed for bankruptcy themselves. Soon Steve and Barry's was just another faded memory.

The ever-resilient state Sen. George Maziarz has unveiled a plan to keep the mall open by having the New York Power Authority purchase it and relocate their offices there. It's a great plan on a number of levels and hopefully it will come to fruition.

In the meantime, the current tenants have been beset by commercial real estate agents like flies on a dead horse. Most will have to make a quick decision on their future if the power authority drags its feet on Maziarz's proposal.

Here's hoping the plan will succeed, because the mall is sort of like Old Falls Street for anyone born between the early '60s and the mid-'80s. When I was a kid, the Summit Park Mall was the first place anyone went when they had a few birthday bucks kicking around in their wallet.

Child World was the best toy store in the region. From new bikes to swimming pools to all of the coolest Star Wars toys, Child World had it all. If Child World didn't have what you were looking for, Spencer Gifts surely did. Black lights and neon posters were all the rage in the '70s, and Spencer Gifts had a wide selection of groovy prints. A lot of kids received their initial sex education from the "adult" section at Spencer Gifts.

Stores like Hens and Kelly, Jenss and McCrory's were always jammed-packed with shoppers. The York Steak House was a favorite eating spot, and the Summit Park Cinema is where I first saw movies such as "Jaws," "Star Wars" and "All the President's Men."

In the '80s, I was manager of the Original Cookie Store in the mall. I was among a group of college-educated mid-20s managers that included the future Lori Caso. People worked together all day and hung out at night. The mall was hopping, and a bright future for everyone seemed inevitable. We had no idea that the gravy days of the Summit were almost over.

What killed the Summit Park Mall is debatable. Some say it was the arrival of Wal-Mart. Others point to the rise of the Prime Outlets mall. There are folks who swear that the mall was sold out by its former owners from Cleveland to bolster their other property at the Boulevard Mall.

Whatever the reasons, the mall is a part of Niagara's history just like the Shredded Wheat plant, Beir's department store and Old Falls Street. The difference is that those other institutions are long gone, never to be resurrected. The mall still has a fighting chance, but action must come quickly and decisively.

Let's hope that the power authority was tuned into Maziarz's summit.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 19 2009