The Mall Shut Down And So Did The Town. Then came Amazon.

North Randall Ohio had drug problems and couldn’t afford police service. The media and labor unions didn’t care until they found a way to ridicule Jeff Bezos.

“You came, you shopped, you dressed nice — you went to the mall,” remembered Seph Lawless, a photographer who grew up hanging out in malls and now photographs their dying exoskeletons. His photo below is of the vandalized Olympic swimming pool in Randall Park Mall, once the crown jewel of America’s 1500 malls dotting the suburban landscape.

The pool in the North Randall Mall, 2006 (photo: Seth Lawless)

The mall at Randall Park was a monument to the American consumer. It had everything: five anchor department stores including Sears and JCPenney, a performing arts center, a hotel complex, and an Olympic sized pool. In 1976, the Cleveland gentry came out in full force for the Mall opening like it was the opera season premiere. Politicians, labor unions, and real estate developers were positively giddy over the chance to rub bare shoulders with the master of ceremonies Dina Merrill, a movie star and one of the world’s wealthiest women (her childhood home was Donald Trump’s Mar a Lago).

Things Change

Then twenty years later people didn’t want everything anymore. What they really liked was shopping in quaint downtown villages that looked like the Cotswolds or, alternatively, buying toothpaste in packs of fifteen at Costco. As consumer tastes shifted in the ’90s, malls went from luxury emporia to white elephants. Then the jobs disappeared. When a mall shuts down, it craters an entire ecosystem. The hotels close, buildings are vandalized, and petty crime and assaults rise.

The 850 residents of North Randall, Ohio, of whom 85% were African Americans, didn’t need an economist to tell them this meant trouble. Healthcare professionals have known for decades that joblessness is the cause of reduced life expectancy, mortality rates 50–100% higher than otherwise expected, low rates of self-esteem, and increased alcohol and drug use.

Crossed Paths

The chance that James Talley, 36, and Guy Wills, III, 41, would meet each other seems fated, in retrospect. In 2004, Wills was an unemployed heroin and cocaine addict and paid for his habit by shoplifting at the mall. Talley was a Maple Heights policeman moonlighting as a Dillard’s security guard. Both men were African American. Talley was watching the closed-circuit security camera when he noticed Wills sticking something under his coat. It turned out to be a $159 leather jacket.

It should have been a routine shoplifting arrest. Talley confronted Wills and as they scuffled, Wills fell to the ground and hit his head on the floor. After the arrest, Wills was taken to a hospital where he refused medical attention and then refused it a second time the following day. He subsequently died from his head injury.

The autopsy didn’t reveal whether Wills could have survived with proper medical attention. As a result, Talley was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. He disappeared into the netherworld of the prison system where journalists weren’t interested in his story any longer. As a convicted felon, Talley stopped mattering, just like the Randall Park Mall.

After the killing, shoppers stopped hanging out or spending money at the Mall. In the next few months, Dillard’s shuttered the store. Because it was the last remaining anchor tenant, it brought down the rest of the mall and 1,000 jobs with it.

The irony of Talley and Wills is that their story led to the rebirth of North Randall.

Town Hall Meeting North Randall

The challenge with dead malls is removing them. For that, a private-sector partner is needed. But it also requires the town to clean up its books because the town has to underwrite the demolition. It is a catch 22, you can’t do a teardown unless you can afford to pay the bill.

North Randall was near fiscal collapse. Snow plowing and police services had been eliminated. A Village Council meeting was held to see if there was anything worth selling. The most promising idea was put forth by the assistant fire chief, “let’s sell the ladder truck.”

North Randall Mayor Dave Smith

Fortunately, the town’s mayor, David Smith, is a public servant whose job is part-time but clocks in hundred-hour weeks visiting his people in a 10-year-old Ford Crown Vic and is also an incurable optimist. On his website, he posted:

“Adversity builds the character of this community and makes it the best location to start new beginnings with happy endings.”

His prophecy turned out to be right.

Miracle-Gro

Two words the 850 residents of North Randall didn’t want to hear was “jobless recovery.” To lower income folks, the phrase sounds like the kind of recovery that skips your neighborhood. They know instinctively that without meaningful jobs there is chaos, opioid addiction, family distress, illness, and crime because they see it first hand around the neighborhood.

But how was North Randall going to convince a private investor to take a chance on a town on the verge of bankruptcy and whose residents weren’t very educated or skilled?

Which explains why the Town Council was perplexed when it received an RFP from Amazon for a fulfillment center. The online retailing giant was planning to build one in Ohio that would create 2,000 jobs in whatever location it chose. These are no ordinary warehouses. They require a massive infrastructure that can be as large as a million square feet spread over 23 acres, which just happens to be about the size of a large shopping mall. The town council applied like a poor man scratching his lottery ticket.

But the bookies weren’t placing good odds on Amazon’s choosing North Randall. There were better-looking places bidding, and there was the question of whether the town could get its fiscal house in order. First, they had to coax investors into tearing down a dilapidated hotel on which they owed $2 million. Mayor Smith jumped into the Crown Vic and went to work.

Indomitable Spirit

2400 miles away in Seattle, vice president Sanjay Shah was concluding his review for the Ohio warehouse. He said, “the company takes into account many factors in making their final choice because our ability to expand is dependent on incredible customers and an outstanding workforce.”

Amazon didn’t see a desperate village in North Randall. It saw an indomitable spirit and a perfect infrastructure. The company issued an announcement that it would build the Ohio fulfillment center in the empty and crumbling spaces of Randall Park.

Mayor Dave Smith was exuberant, “I’m lost for words because we are so fortunate to get this project.”

Few people appreciate how much the Amazon jobs meant to North Randall. To the little town with an average age of 55 and per capita income of $21,421, the Amazon wages starting at $15 per hour or over $30,000 per year before stock options and bonuses, health insurance and tuition refund, are the best of their kind, according to Digital Commerce, “and significantly exceed federal and state minimums.”

Fact Checking

North Randall isn’t on the list of 50 best places to visit. It is flyover country, the phrase journalists like to use to describe a place that doesn’t have a Starbucks or a “Joe and the Juice” bar.

Which is why a press release from a Cleveland based labor activist claiming Amazon was exploiting Ohio workers blindsided the company and its iconic CEO. After all, Amazon was bringing 2,000 new jobs to Ohio. But they weren’t union jobs, and big labor was taking its best shot. The release said warehouse wages were so low people needed food stamps to survive.

The truth was later revealed that employees qualify for food assistance based on pre-existing health issues or the number of children or dependent parents, and the salary was one of many factors.

Dozens of news websites, including wealth worshipping CNBC and Business Insider, found a headline with Jeff Bezos and “low warehouse wages” too delicious to pass up. The stories sparked an outcry because the media lusts for anti-Amazon news. There was no fact-checking either. Story after story copied the press release word for word (Google “Amazon warehouse wages and food stamps” and you’ll see).

But the media was hiding its own dirty little secret. It neglected to mention, according to Glassdoor (a source of online employee opinion), that Amazon pays the highest wages for this type of work, with extraordinary benefits even to part-time workers including tuition refund and comprehensive health insurance. Ironically, Amazon’s warehouse wages exceeded the hourly salaries paid by the media covering the company, including Slate, Salon, and HuffPo.

The Ohio labor activist has hourly interns too, only it doesn’t pay them anything, according to Glassdoor, a violation of Ohio and Federal labor law.

The Payoff

Amazon fulfillment center in North Randall Ohio

The Amazon warehouse in North Randall opened its doors on September 9th, 2018. The company invested $177 million in the project and is on track to hire 2,000 employees.

At the reception, Mayor Smith thanked Amazon for making the project a reality: “It is a miracle. We have been through our hardest times as a community, but this was a worthy payoff for the struggle.”

A random killing, which led to a total breakdown of the social fabric, turned North Randall into a ghost town and an opioid statistic until now. In that sense, the real miracle was the resilience of people and Amazon’s belief that community spirit is the strongest asset on a balance sheet.

Professor of Leadership. Extraordinary Lives Project. Author “Be Somebody” (2021); 2019 Telly Award IconicVoices.tv; ex-publisher Forbes