Reality: Orange Park Mall is a safe place to shop


ORANGE PARK – It’s unfair when a group of unruly children makes it difficult for everyone.

A handful of punks turned the Orange Park Mall parking lot into a mosh pit and ultimate fighting ring on Feb. 19. They jumped on cars, ran between vehicles like they were being chased by a snake and threw wild punches in an adrenaline-induced outburst.

The initial report suggested as many as 2,000 were involved. That’s what happens when you get caught in the moment and rely on social media for facts.

The truth is a small group of teens was involved. However, two troublemakers is too many.

The mall doesn’t allow anyone younger than 18 after 8 p.m. If a younger person wants to go to the movies, they must be accompanied by an adult. The rest were supposed to go home. For most, that means taking their rage back home to the other side of Interstate 295 in Jacksonville.

Outbursts like two weekends ago are one reason why the mall continues to battle against a perception that it’s not a safe place.

“The reality is, we’ve had two incidents at the mall involving youth in the last year,” said Sheriff Michelle Cook. “What happened there (two weeks ago) centered around five people.”

Nonetheless, mall and sheriff’s office officials met this week to consider a more-proactive plan to eliminate any after-hour problems.

“It’s a perception issue with Orange Park Mall, not a reality issue,” Cook said. “I don’t want the perception to become the reality.”

Mall General Manager Randy Bowman said the shopping center at the corners of Wells Road and Blanding Boulevard has been “battling” the belief that it’s unsafe.

“It’s one of the biggest challenges I’ve had in five years since I’ve been here,” Bowman said.

The sheriff’s office started its “Gateway to Clay” initiative in 2021 to clean up the Wells Road area near the mall. Deputies, officers and government officials have gone door-to-door twice to talk with residents and business owners about their biggest concerns. Many of the streets and medians have been cleaned, and trees have been planted. The agency said it’s improved its line of communication with everyone on Wells Road, and as a result, more businesses have moved in and dilapidated buildings and homeless camps have been swept away.

And violent crime dropped by 45% in one year.

If the mall were such a dangerous place, why are tenants clambering to do business there? Of the 147 retail and restaurant spots in the mall, 146 are occupied. And there’s a letter of intent for the final spot. In the past year, the mall gained nine new tenants.

One area that’s now being addressed is the old Sears and Sears Automotive stores. The empty buildings have a prominent spot on the southwest corner of the property and the abandoned stores create the appearance the rest of the mall is blighted.

However, Bowman said there are plans to knock the buildings down and replace them with Orange Park Plaza. That will be open to smaller tenants and two outtake buildings for restaurants.

“That side of the mall makes the mall look dead,” Bowman said, “but that’s going to change. We hope to start the project in 2024.”

Cook and Bowman agree the mall is a vibrant hub of commerce for the county. Not only does it have the county’s largest tax base, but as many as 3,500 are employed there.

“When you have a property like this at 99.5% occupancy, that’s phenomenal in our business,” Bowman said.

While places in Jacksonville like Regency Square Mall and Gateway Town Center and the Ponce DeLeon Mall in St. Augustine have either closed or have a limited number of tenants, Orange Park Mall flourishes.

It just needs a solution between the mall, security, sheriff’s office and, most importantly, the parents who don’t pick up their children on time to stop the infrequent problems – and misleading videos – caused by a handful of unruly children.


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