Clay County commissioner weighs in on Orange Park Mall’s future, cites changes ahead

Zoey Fields

Changes are coming to Orange Park Mall that could help change the focus from the recent reports of juvenile disturbances at the property.

The biggest “heartache” of the Orange Park Mall, according to Clay County Commissioner Jim Renninger, is the old Sears property which has been vacant for approximately four years, he said.

“We need to put a new ‘front door’ on the mall,” Renninger said. “That would be a positive change for the property; just by revitalizing the dilapidated front door, you’re encouraging people to walk through it.”

Orange Park Mall is “thriving” in comparison to other shopping centers across the nation, Renninger said. The property is 98% occupied with only a few vacant storefronts.

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The Orange Park Mall opened in 1975 and still remains at 98% capacity, Renninger said.Photo byFlorida Times-Union

Renninger hinted that Clay County residents could expect to see an announcement in the “near future” that the old Sears property has been purchased, which would push the mall’s storefront occupancy rate even higher. The mall is currently in communication with an interested, private buyer and has reached the negotiations phase, he said.

The Orange Park Mall forwarded NewsBreak’s requests about the potential buyer of the Sears property to the parcel owner company, Transformco. Transformco did not respond to NewsBreak’s inquiries about who or when the purchase might be made.

According to Business Insider, there were only 700 malls left standing in the United States during an Oct. 2022 study—down 2,500 from the 1980s as online shopping becomes more mainstream.

“With frequent shoppers and guests still visiting the mall, there are bound to be disruptions and disturbances, as with any place where large groups of people gather in one spot,” Renninger said in reference to security issues.

“Teenagers have always done crazy stuff,” he said. “Only now, instead of doing it in a cornfield, they are doing it in the mall. They are congregating in these air-conditioned facilities, but that doesn’t mean the mall is to blame.”

Curtis Brown is the owner of Laugh World Kids Boutique located in Zone A (near Dillard’s Department Store) of the Orange Park Mall. Brown just signed a new lease after three years of operating in the mall, he said.

“I’ve never had to call security or deal with any issues of ‘disturbances’ since opening my shop,” he said. “I have heard about the security concerns, but a lot of it is made out to be more extreme than what it is.”

On Saturday, Feb. 18, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office responded to the Orange Park Mall in reference to a large group of teenagers causing a disturbance. Rumors circulated that there were more than 2,000 juveniles involved in the incident. It was later debunked and Sheriff Michelle Cook confirmed there were only eight juveniles involved and no arrests made.

“I hear people talk about the number of incidents or the number of people involved in each incident and I say ‘that’s exaggerated,’” he said. “Kids and teenagers are not terrorizing businesses—or, at least not mine. I feel very safe.”

Commissioner Renninger met with Orange Park Mall’s general manager, Randy Bowman, in Sept. 2022, following a disturbance that took place at the AMC movie theater in the mall on National Cinema Day. Click here for NewsBreak’s coverage of the incident.

According to witnesses, fights broke out and someone yelled “he has a gun.” The incident forced the mall and the theater to shut down early at 6:30 p.m. One arrest was made and no gun was found, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office said.

Renninger said the Orange Park Mall provides some of its own security personnel through a private firm and the mall’s corporate office is “very tight-lipped” about the number of employees the mall hires for its personal security. “They do not want to broadcast how many security guards they have, as some are dressed in ‘normal’ clothing.”

The mall also hires five off-duty Clay County Sheriff’s Office deputies for additional security on Fridays and Saturdays, Clay County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Deputy Andrew Ford said.

Click here to read more about hiring off-duty Clay County sheriff’s office deputies.

“We [the sheriff’s office] don’t have any control over the mall’s security plan,” Ford said. “The sheriff, along with our director of patrol, will look at trends as far as population, crime rates and other factors in order to have the appropriate number of deputies patrolling a zone in the county at a time, but as far as anything happening ‘inside’ the mall, we do not oversee that.”

Of course, if someone inside the mall calls 9-1-1, sheriff’s office deputies will respond to the scene, he said. But the agency has no say in the number of security personnel or off-duty deputies that the mall chooses to employ, he said.

Orange Park Mall General Manager Randy Bowman did not respond to NewsBreak inquiries about current or future security measures. A spokesperson with the mall provided the statement below:

“At Orange Park Mall, our top priority is giving our guests a memorable and enjoyable experience. We aim to provide a mix of retail, dining and entertainment options that guests will love and want to visit often. Orange Park Mall has more than 130 national, regional and local retailers and is proud to be 98% leased.

As part of our commitment to a superior guest experience, we take a holistic approach to safety and security. Orange Park Mall operates with industry best-in-class practices and programs, including our own security force 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on foot and in vehicles, camera surveillance, special operations plain clothes officers, ongoing crisis planning and practice drills, and numerous other security procedures. We work closely with Clay County Sheriff's Office and have a strong collaborative relationship that includes on-site police presence.

We recognize the important role of Orange Park Mall as a gathering place in our community. Our management team stays involved with local civic and business organizations and meets regularly with county officials and community leaders so that we can continue to partner and collaborate.”

Another county effort that Renninger expects to make a positive impact on the Orange Park Mall is the countywide “Gateway to Clay” initiative that focuses on improving the quality of life and launching beautification efforts to make Clay County a more inviting place to live and work.

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The former Sears department store in the Orange Park Mall closed almost four years ago and has stood vacant since.Photo byJacksonville Daily Record

The county has chosen Urban Land Institute North Florida (ULI), a nonprofit specializing in land use and real estate development disciplines, to study four different areas for redevelopment (Wells Road, College Drive, Blanding Boulevard and High Ridge Estates), Renninger said. Improvements would be all-encompassing, not just in one specific area or section of the road.

“Basically, I am expecting them to recommend a commercial overlay which, for example, recommends parallel parking in certain areas, diagonal parking in others, color schemes, monument signs, bike paths along roads and things of that nature,” Renninger said.

“They are going to recommend how we make these areas more attractive to commercial residents and residential users so it becomes more conducive for people to come out and eat dinner, shop at the mall or go to a movie.”

The dates for the two-day ULI North Florida observations and recommendations have not been selected but are expected to begin in the summer of 2023.

Click here to learn more about ULI North Florida and the work they have done in surrounding counties.

Click here to learn more about the Clay County Gateway to Clay initiative.

Click here to visit the Orange Park Mall’s webpage.

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