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2014-04-23 / Front Page

Swinging back

Surviving retail flight and a dead mall, eastern Midlothian eyes a comeback
By Peter Galuszka


Gary Hinshaw took over Putt-Putt on Midlothian Turnpike in 1978 – and never left. Gary Hinshaw took over Putt-Putt on Midlothian Turnpike in 1978 – and never left. For 42 years, the brightly colored Putt-Putt golf course has been a touchstone for family memories in Chesterfield County. It came of age during Cloverleaf Mall’s reign on eastern Midlothian Turnpike, its 18-hole courses and arcade packing in customers young and old, the centerpiece of a veritable entertainment district.

It also has been bellwether of how well the area, a critical gateway into Chesterfield from Chippenham Parkway, is doing.

Business stayed strong for years after Cloverleaf, a local landmark, opened with 45 stores in 1972. It plunged dramatically when the mall finally shut down in 2008. Putt-Putt hung in. Now there are signs of new life, says a manager as she sells tickets to schoolchildren on spring break last week. “We’ll see this summer now that we have a Kroger Marketplace down the street,” says Patsy Hinshaw, manager and wife of co-owner Gary Hinshaw.


More than four decades later, the Putt-Putt Fun Center on Midlothian Turnpike maintains its ultimate lure: Putters always have a shot at a hole in one. More than four decades later, the Putt-Putt Fun Center on Midlothian Turnpike maintains its ultimate lure: Putters always have a shot at a hole in one. Up and down the area’s thoroughfares, there are toeholds of optimism. The 123,000-square-foot Kroger Marketplace opened in December 2012 at the old Cloverleaf site now known as Stonebridge. There’s a Panera Bread across the street near a Chipotle Mexican Grill that is due on the spot of the former BK Music store. Crowds waited in the frigid pre-dawn hours in late January for a new Krispy Kreme doughnut shop to open.

“There’s progress but it’s incremental,” says Steve Meadows, an insurance salesman who is president of the Gateway Association, a community organization that includes businesses and neighbors and has worked for several years to revitalize the old Cloverleaf area. “Yes, the area seems to be coming back,” says Casey Southard, store manager of the Fresh to Frozen grocery store at 7803 Midlothian Turnpike.

The area’s potential renaissance reverberates far beyond Midlothian Turnpike. With its Thalhimers and other quality stores, Cloverleaf was a major regional retail destination. Women from Richmond to Amelia County shopped there for wedding dresses and furs. After residential development shifted farther west in a classic hopscotch fashion, the demise of Cloverleaf was noted nationally by academics and on quirky websites such as deadmalls.com. A recent story from the London-based BBC quotes the Chesterfield Observer as saying that by the 1990s, Cloverleaf had changed so much that women, its best customers, started staying away. They feared gangs because they “started seeing kids with huge baggy pants and chains hanging off their belts, and people were intimidated,” according to a former mall manager. A double homicide at the mall in 1996, in the backroom of a dollar store, cemented its fate.

The story, however, may already be out of date. Roving teenagers are a thing of the past. To help bring the area back, property owners in the area agreed to a special tax assessment, a 3-cent localized property tax hike, to raise $300,000 to spruce up the medians and sidewalks with plants and trees, along with other upgrades. “Unfortunately, some of the trees died after two years and have to be replaced, but all in all it’s going well,” Meadows said.

The next stage is the long-awaited construction of about 600 apartment units at the $100 million Stonebridge project. The apartments, plus townhouses and single-family homes, are a key ingredient to reviving the area but were caught in the real estate and financial turmoil of the 2007-2009 recession.

Once the apartments are built, Meadows said, a viable, walkable community will be born that can take advantage of other elements in place such as the 24-hour Kroger store, eateries and personal service centers such as Great Clips. A point of emphasis is making certain there are sidewalks. Meadows said that Spring Rock Shopping Center on the north side of Midlothian Turnpike has put in sidewalks, as has Stonebridge.

Some stores, such as Fresh to Frozen, moved into area ahead of the current transformation because ample space was available. Fresh to Frozen, a salvage grocery store of sorts, moved to its Midlothian Turnpike store, formerly a Ukrop’s, three years ago.

The store offers food products that may have slightly damaged boxes or fresh fruit and meats at a discount. Three ears of fresh corn were selling for $1.58 compared to $2.99 at a nearby regional chain store. One older woman picked over marked-down oranges. “I used to go to the other store,” she said, adding that she’s now a Fresh to Frozen convert. “I’d follow them anywhere.”

Putt-Putt, however, may be the sturdiest of the bunch. The busy arcade – now called the Putt-Putt Fun Center and operating out of a stone-sided building designed with a mountain motif – was built in 1983 when video games were all the rage. The owners, Gary Hinshaw and a partner out of North Carolina, added bumper boats in 1994 and a go-cart track in 2002.

While the movie theater behind him went out of business and other retailers fled farther west, Hinshaw says he stayed the course because, well, he didn’t have much choice. Uprooting his business could have cost $3 million to $4 million, maybe more.

“There was a time in the early 1990s when I thought, ‘How much longer is this location viable?” said Hinshaw, who moved to Richmond from Greensboro, N.C., in 1978 to manage the business, and wound up owning it. “The mall was going downhill. That westward expansion –families with disposable income and kids were moving farther and farther away from us.”

But Hinshaw and his wife stayed put. They stuck it out and worked to keep the business going – they’ve hosted 30,000 birthday parties, Hinshaw said – and somehow managed to survive it all. Now, with new life just down the road at the old Cloverleaf site, there’s a glimmer of hope again that the business is coming back around.

“Last summer, we had a 40th birthday party for someone who had their ninth birthday party here,” Hinshaw said, proudly. “Every day, we get people who say, ‘I haven’t been here in 20 years.”

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